Life is full of rituals, from high church liturgies to baseball players’ on-deck circle routines. Humans are ritual-making creatures. Rituals connect us to the past and remind us of what is important in the present.
How some rituals came into existence is a mystery. For example, who was the first person to think it was a good idea to throw newborns off the Sri Santeswar Temple in Karnatak, India? Don’t worry: family members wait below to catch the child in a cloth-like net. But how does it bring the child good luck?
Then there is the world-famous Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. In what possible way does running wildly through narrow streets with a stampede of 1,000-pound bulls at people’s heels bring honor to St. Fermin, the city’s patron saint?
Americans have their own strange rituals. Sailors who cross the equator are inducted into the “Order of the Shellback” by King Neptune, with Davy Jones and others in attendance. The ritual usually includes a breakfast that is too spicy to eat and requires “pollywogs” (sailors who have not previously crossed the equator) to kiss the belly of the “royal baby.”
Readers might think that Christians like me would be at home with strange rituals. After all, we take people who profess faith in Jesus Christ and submerge them in water. What possible connection is there between believing in Jesus and getting wet?
It does seem an odd thing to do. “Oh, you want to begin a new life with God? That is great! I am so excited for you. Now, let me stick your head under water.”
I have officiated over baptisms in public swimming areas and have wondered what the lifeguards thought about it all. Did they wonder if they should jump in and save that poor woman from the madman holding her under water? Why would Jesus’s followers do such a thing?
The short answer is that Jesus told them to, but that just kicks the can down the long and winding theological road. Why did Jesus tell them to do this? That question can only be answered by approaching it from two different directions. First, what does baptism mean and, second, what does baptism do?
What baptism means is wrapped up in various images. There is the image of cleansing. Baptism pictures a person’s sins being washed away. So St. Paul, recalling his own baptism, says he was told to “Get up, be baptized, and wash your sins away.”
Baptism also represents the end of the old life and the beginning of a new one in which Jesus is leader. According to the apostle, the baptized person is immersed into Christ’s death in preparation for the new kind of life they are beginning. When they rose from their brief “water burial,” they imaged the resurrection.
To be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to be “immersed” (that is the principal meaning of the word) in a life in which God himself is present and preeminent. Baptism is about bringing people fully into the divine fellowship of the Trinity.
Much more could – and needs to be – said about what baptism means. But what does baptism do? In answering that question, it is important not to separate the outward rite from the inward reality it represents. Unless both are present, what I am about to say does not hold true.
Assuming both are present, baptism gives someone a new identity. He or she is identified as Jesus’s person and a member of his people; that is, his church. To be baptized is not merely to join an organization called First Church (or something like it) but to join the world-wide company of those who believe Jesus to be earth’s rightful ruler. It is to join the insurgency of love.
Certain clubs and orders identify their members by passwords and signs. The members of Christ’s insurgency are identified by baptism. Whenever they meet someone who has “come through the waters,” they know they have met a brother or sister in Christ’s service. Baptism is the not-so-secret sign that they belong to Christ and to each other.
First published by Gatehouse Media