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The public proclamation of baptismal vows

Tradition has the church celebrating the festival of the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday after Epiphany. The Advent season is filled with stories of John the Baptist — Elizabeth’s pregnancy and John’s development; the Christmas season brings the many stories of Jesus’ birth and its impact on a number of people (and even animals).

Giotto di Bondone’s Baptism of the Lord is a celebrated rendition of John’s baptism of Jesus with a community gathered. Giotto, who painted this work from 1304 to 1306, was an Italian artist well-known for his series of 23 works on the life of Christ. Graphic courtesy of www.giottodibondone.org.

Giotto di Bondone’s Baptism of the Lord is a celebrated rendition of John’s baptism of Jesus with a community gathered. Giotto, who painted this work from 1304 to 1306, was an Italian artist well-known for his series of 23 works on the life of Christ. Graphic courtesy of www.giottodibondone.org.

The Baptism of the Lord is the culmination of the previous six or seven weeks. It is the very public declaration of a passing of the torch from the one preparing of the way to The Way.

Have baptisms maintained this public aspect in the tradition of the church? Or, are they more likely these days to be an individual celebrations for families, more akin to a child’s graduation than a communal event?

“In this month in which we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and remember,” says Marilyn Sharpe, independent presenter and congregational coach on topics of parenting, “what would it mean to remember our baptism and the baptism of those we are nurturing in the faith every day, and live in that life-giving relationship with our Lord and Savior?

“It is important to remember that, as members of our congregation, we, too, made some promises to accept this newly baptized child as a brother or sister in Christ, a fellow worker in the kingdom, and to support this family to keep their promises,” Sharpe reminds us. “We are now a ‘water family.’ How can we live that together?”

The baptismal community

At Light of the World Lutheran Church (ELCA), a new start-up in Farmington, Minnesota, the very public commitments of baptism have become a central part of that congregation’s self-understanding. “We do say baptism happens between God and a child,” explains director of faith formation, Dawn Alitz. “It also has a larger communal aspect. The community is making a commitment to support the child and raise the child up in the faith. That’s not a small commitment for us.

“When we have a baby being baptized, we have an opportunity to talk with parents about their own faith commitments,” says Alitz, who last year completed a Ph.D. in pastoral care in children, youth, and family ministry at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. “And if parents know what they believe and why, it is more likely that the child will be raised in the faith.” The probability of ongoing contact between the children and the members of the congregation increases when parents see the value of relationships in the child’s life.

“We are now a ‘water family.’ How can we live that together?”

The words of the liturgy are affected by this perspective at Light of the World. “The public words we say in the ritual are very specific; it is really an adoption ceremony where everyone is making commitments,” Alitz comments.

“Too often, in preparing parents and sponsors for baptism, pastors and other church professionals focus on a dress rehearsal of the baptismal service itself,” says Sharpe. Too much emphasis is put on the non-essentials: “’You will stand here … then you pass the baby to … then you will say …’” she adds. “We miss a rich, meaningful opportunity to help those adults who love the child, who will live alongside that child every day, who will be the primary faith shapers in the life of the child to learn what it means to keep those promises made at the baptismal font and to live that baptism every single day for the rest of their lives.”

Such an understanding of baptism has an impact in two ways. “If the community realizes that it is taking responsibility for these children in the ritual of baptism,” Alitz says, “then [it] needs to acknowledge that we cannot exclude them from [its] main time of common worship.”

At Light of the World, this means that many congregants sit at tables, often with family members. The tables have crayons and paper and quiet toys so that children are present and experience the fullness of the body of Christ.

Baptism as a public rite

Martin E. Marty’s 2008 book, Baptism: A User’s Guide, (Augsburg Books, 168 pages, softbound) similarly calls out the public as well as the personal devotional aspects of the rite of baptism. In a chapter titled “The Dangerous Grace of Baptizing,” Marty acknowledges the death the baptized is invited into. And, so as not to sentimentalize it, he immediately reminds readers that, in some times and places, being baptized and living into that baptism led inevitably to martyrdom. The public embrace of God’s offer of grace has consequences, Marty reminds readers.

Is baptism then a “new beginning” or a promised ending? Luther would likely say both, according to Marty. Indeed, the baptismal act is one of burial. And yet, death is never the last word in the Christian tradition. Baptism points to the new life that can be lived out in the community of the faithful — in public, in relationship with those who have made a commitment and feel an obligation. New beginnings, indeed.

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