Sunday, 13 January 2013

Baptism of Christ: The waters of baptism

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, the moment when Jesus, like us, goes through the waters of baptism. Luke’s account of this moment is actually rather vague. He seems far more interested in God’s acclamation of Jesus as his Son, the Beloved. The baptism itself almost slips past unnoticed – “when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus had been baptised and was praying…” Blink and you’ve missed it. Luke doesn’t tell us how Jesus was baptised, what he understood by it, or why it mattered that it happened.  This vagueness has left all sorts of problems for Christians since. Often baptism has been a bone of contention between different branches of the Church, and a bit of a mystery to people both within and outside it.

After one of the baptisms I did last year, a woman came up to me with her little girl, who was about four years old I would guess. “My daughter just asked me a question” the woman said, “I didn’t know the answer, so we thought we’d ask you. She wanted to know why you poured water on babies at baptism...” And there they stood looking hopefully at me, trusting that I would provide them with a pithy, simple response which a child of four could understand…

I can’t remember what I said, but I can remember knowing that there was no chance I could give them what they were looking for. The fact is that baptism is as hard to pin down as the water we use to do it. What is it about? Who is it for? What does it do? These are questions which people have answered quite differently over the centuries, and often argued bitterly about.

Some branches of the church insist that only adults can be baptised, others baptise babies as well. Adult baptism stresses our personal commitment to God; infant baptism stresses God’s commitment to us which is there from the beginning, before we can speak for ourselves. Some see baptism mainly as the way people join the family of the Church, a collective view, or as the start of a journey of faith, part of a process. For others, though, it is all about the washing away of original sin, a sin they believe is inherited automatically by every human being. If you believe that, which I don’t, it turns baptism into an individual thing, and one which does what it needs to do in one fell swoop. It doesn’t matter whether the person concerns ever sets foot in church again.  Original sin was an idea which really only became widespread in the fourth Century, but it has been very prominent in Christian thinking since then, especially around baptism, leading people to baptise babies as soon as possible after birth, especially if they are in danger of death.

The “official” views of Baptism are many and various, then, but that is just the “official” views. People who come to me to ask for baptism often have their own ways of looking at it, and they can be even more varied.  “It’s about giving my child something to belong to” “It’s about putting my child in God’s care” “It’s about setting them on the right road” “It’s about giving thanks for them, welcoming them into the world”.

I recall one mum saying that her auntie had told her that if her baby was baptised he’d never have another day’s illness in his life. That needed a bit of exploring, otherwise she might have sued me under the Trades Description Act when her child next went down with a cold… but I understood where she was coming from. She knew deep down that baptism couldn’t guarantee her child good health, but it gave her the sense that she wasn’t on her own as she tried to steer him through the perils of life.

Sometimes these days, baptism seems to take the place of a wedding in people’s lives. The arrival of a child makes an unmarried couple feel united in a new way. Baptism expresses that new sense of common purpose they’ve found in their child. Often a wedding follows close behind –  sometimes people just need a chance to get used to the idea of a commitment…  

Many Christians, I am sure, would be itching to leap in and set these folk straight. Surely all this is a long way from the “real” meaning of baptism, they want to say. But the longer I go on the less I’ve wanted to do that. If the official theology of baptism is so varied, then who am I to say that these unofficial views are any less valid? Part of the reason why I include so many different symbols in our baptism services here – not just water but also oil, candles, shells and shawls too – is that each of them opens up a new layer of meaning, and it seems to me that somewhere in all this families ought to be able to find something that honours whatever it was that brought them to that point. One thing I am certain of though; if we don’t honour the family’s intention, their initial reason for being there, then the baptism won’t be real for them at all. It won’t help them express what they need to say to God, and it won’t help them hear what God needs to say to them either.

And that brings me back to our Gospel story for today, because although Luke is maddeningly vague about Jesus’ baptism, what he does say actually conveys something I think is absolutely vital about it.  “When all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised…” he says. What Luke tells us, almost by accident is that, for whatever reason, Jesus is determined to share the experience of those around him, to do what everyone else has to do, to go where everyone else has to go.

What we need to know to understand this story is that by the time Luke is writing, the baptism of Christ was something which had become rather inconvenient and awkward for the Church. Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one, written around 60 AD, 30 years after Jesus’ death, painted a picture of him as a good man, God’s Messiah, but someone who was very much made of the same stuff as the rest of us.  As time passed though, the emphasis shifted and Christians started to speak of Jesus not just as good but as completely sinless.

They battled over precisely what that meant for centuries, and one of the flies in the ointment was this story of Jesus’ baptism. Why would a sinless Jesus need a baptism of repentance? Mark simply tells us that Jesus was baptised by John – it was no problem for him at the time he was writing. But Matthew, writing a decade or so later has John the Baptist arguing that he shouldn’t baptise Jesus; Jesus should be baptising him. Luke, written around the same time, takes the line that the less he says the better; hence the bafflingly brief mention.  When we get to John’s Gospel, written at the end of the first century, he leaves out the baptism completely. John the Baptist and Jesus simply have a conversation which happens to take place by the river Jordan, but no one actually gets wet at all…

Strangely enough, though, what all this evasiveness does is to strengthen the argument that Jesus really did get baptised. Who would make up something  which was so obviously inconvenient? Biblical scholars question lots of bits of the Bible – did they really happen? – but this isn’t one of them. Jesus was baptised, and that tells us that, whatever we think it means to say he is the Son of God, it doesn’t mean that he keeps his distance from us. He’s fully part of the life of the world with all its dangers and distress, quite literally immersed in it. If his baptism tells us nothing more about the baptisms we go through than this, then that’s enough for me. “When you pass through the waters,” says God in our Old Testament reading, “I will be with you”, and here is Jesus, living out that promise.

Why do we pour water on babies’ heads at baptism? Well, water is a symbol of life, something without which life couldn’t exist. We need it to drink and to wash in. It reminds us too of the dangers of life. Water can overwhelm us and drown us; in the end death comes to us all. But in all these waters, God is with us, giving us life, washing us clean, taking us through death to new life. He is there not just once, when the water of baptism is poured over our heads, but always.

That message came home to me very powerfully one summer when I was on a walking holiday in Cornwall with a friend. We happened on a footpath to what was enigmatically called a “holy well” at a place called Madron, near Penzance. The path was very overgrown, but at the end of it we came to an ancient spring. Beside it stood a cloutie tree – a tree which people had tied strips of cloth to as wishes or prayers, and just beyond that stood a tiny, ruined church. It had no roof. It was little more than a pile of stones in fact, but inside, you could see an altar at one end, and at the other end a stone trough which had obviously been the font. The fact that it was a font was clear because the stream from the spring had been channelled so that it flowed through the wall of the church straight into it. Those who’d worshipped there would have been constantly aware of the running water, and even now, when the church had long since fallen into disuse, that water of baptism was still flowing, all day, every day.  I’ve never forgotten that. We are baptised in a ritual that takes place once, but that moment is a reminder that the stream of God’s love flows forever. It is poured out afresh every moment. It never comes to an end.   

We’ll never be able to pin down the waters of baptism, to explain and understand them - that’s in the nature of water. It takes new shapes all the time, filling the spaces we make for it. But that water of baptism comes with a promise we can hold onto for the whole of our lives. “When you pass through the waters – whatever they are - I will be with you.”

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