This past week we had a baptism, and it gave us an opportunity to reflect on this often-forgotten and even more often-misunderstood Christian sacrament.
We should first understand what a sacrament is. A sacrament is a ritual or a rite of passage. It is something sacred, a moment which is set apart or which sets us apart as something special. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace".
In other words, the form of the sacrament or what the sacrament actually accomplishes is perhaps less important that what we think the sacrament accomplishes.
For example, the sacrament with which Anglicans are most familiar is Communion. We generally do it every week. The form the sacrament takes is that of bread and wine, and in a literal sense, all we are doing is eating and drinking that bread and wine.
But what we think we are doing is more important and meaningful than the outward appearance. Whether we think we are symbolically or literally partaking in the body of Christ, whether we feel we are symbolically or literally partaking in the fruits of creation, or whether we think we are just sharing a meal with friends, family and neighbour, the important part of the ritual is the emotional and spiritual result it has upon us.
The sacrament of baptism has been and continues to be a hotly debated topic in Christendom.
In years gone by, many theories have been proposed, the most tasteless of which being the notion that if a baby dies without having been baptized, that baby goes to hell. If that is the way you feel God works, I have no idea why you would worship him.
Another theory is that baptism cleanses away sin. But how could a months-old baby possibly sin? If that were the case, wouldn't baptism be more effective on our death bed, after we have had a lifetime to sin?
And if our rite of baptism descends from Christ's baptism, are we suggesting that Christ required a cleansing of sin or that he required baptism to be on God's radar?
The fact of the matter is that the Christian form of baptism comes from our Jewish forebears. Ancient Judaism did not require baptism of all members, as Judaism was principally a racial consideration. However, if a non-Jew converted to Judaism, baptism was required to cleanse the new initiate of his or her past life of sin, which is perhaps the source of some Christians' belief that baptism is a cleansing of sin.
The biggest question brought up by Jesus' baptism is why would he need it? He was born and raised Jewish, and so would not require a baptism.
But here is where perhaps the most important aspect of baptism comes in. Jesus' baptism represented a choice on his part. It represents his choosing God and choosing his mission. And this is what baptism represents: choice. If you read the service itself, it consists mainly of a series of promises that we exchange with one another.
But here is one of the controversies about baptism, and it has been the cause of schism in the church: how can an infant possibly make an informed choice in the matter? Surely they have not nearly attained the age of reason. This is why some denominations only practice adult baptism.
This is where we need to re-evaluate what actually happens during baptism. In reality, it is of course not the child who is making the promises. The parents and godparents make promises on behalf of the child, and the congregation makes promises to the child and family. Essentially they make promises to support, encourage, protect and nurture one another.
In reality, these promises should not have to be made out loud. Parents, friends and family members should already want to do those things, should already have a desire to do those things, should already feel them naturally. In the same sense as marriage vows are redundant (a couple should already want to support and protect and be faithful to one another), so are the baptismal promises.
So why do it?
The power of ritual is that it marks the moment as sacred. It sets us and the moment apart. It marks our transition from one stage of life to another, and emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, that is profoundly important.
The tragedy of modern North American culture is that we have very few rituals, very little that is still sacred. For example, how do we know when we became an adult? When we graduated high school? Got our license? Moved out of our parents? Got our first job? Got our first house? Got married? Had kids?
By these definitions, there are many people in their 80s and 90s who never became adults, and yet we would not argue that they are.
Many cultures (ours included in years gone by) have specific rituals which let a child know they are now to give up childish ways and take on the mantle of adulthood. There is a discrete moment when this change occurs. Physically, very little has changed from one moment to the next, but psychologically, this shift is palpable.
Our culture seems to have lost this, and so we have generations of adult children with little sense of responsibility and maturity.
Baptism marks a moment in the life of a family, and it has less to do with membership in the church than it has to do with moving from being a couple to being a family with a child. It is a move from one sphere of responsibility and influence to another. It is a public proclamation of those feelings and responsibilities which should naturally be on our hearts before we make that move.
Unfortunately, I get the impression that for many people today, churchgoers included, view baptism as a photo opportunity.
In reality, it is an important sacrament that deserves to be taken seriously.