Baptism, Then and Now
In the modern world, the rite of Baptism must seem strange and archaic to those with no familiarity with its history and meaning. Indeed, when we move from whatever form of baptism we are familiar with in our own tradition to look at what others do instead, the act of baptism must raise almost as many questions as it does answers.
The mental image of John the Baptist, wild eyed, unkempt and dressed in animal skins, berating members of the crowd before dunking them into the weedy, dirty water of the Jordan river could not be much further from the genteel image of a robed priest reciting a few carefully proscribed words from a standardized prayer book before gently sprinkling a few drops of pre-warmed water on the forehead of a tiny baby and baptizing him or her in the names from the fourth century formula of the Trinity. Can I suggest that at the very least it takes great leap in imagination before assuming that the words and actions the British royal family witnesses at the baptism services of its various princes and princesses are somehow the equivalent of the ranting and threats of John the Baptist in full voice.
While it may be somewhat embarrassing it is probably fair enough to ask what, if anything, is retained in modern versions of baptism when set against Matthew’s original gospel account.
We might start by noting that John was not the first to baptize in Palestine. The ritual of baptism back then, was usually the dramatic key event in the initiation for the gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. This wasn’t the case for those born into the Jewish faith. They would instead be presented to the Temple or Synagogue soon after birth and be expected to go through another ceremony at about age 12 before they could take their full place in Jewish society.
The understanding at that time was that baptism was unnecessary for Jews since being born into the Jewish family community was enough to begin as a member of the Chosen Race. On the other hand to join that Chosen Race from the outside meant setting aside one’s old faith, which was seen as needing evidence of total commitment. Thus the ceremony of baptism by full immersion in the river was considered to be the outward display of one prepared to renounce their previous beliefs and take on the new life and new direction.
At the time of Jesus, the emergence of small number of baptizers, including John the Baptist, wanting to baptize Jews, was part of a growing movement reflecting the desperation experienced by the Jews at the time of the Roman occupation. Their historical understanding had been that they were a special people – chosen by God – yet the promised Messiah who had been expected to appear like King David to lead them to their rightful restored place had not arrived and some, like John, were now teaching that this was really because the Jews had gone so far from the ways of God that they might not even have the right to be thought of as God’s people.
Jews they may have been be in name- yet as far as those like John the Baptist were concerned, what was required was for them to re-join the faithful and demonstrate their commitment by having themselves baptized. Only then would the Messiah appear.
Matthew’s version has John calling the Pharisees and Sadducees amongst the crowd “a brood of vipers”. In Mark’s earlier version of the same story, it is the crowd in general who are thus addressed, and although we would almost certainly be shocked if a modern preacher were to address those who arrive at a place of baptism in those terms, it may remind us that if baptism is to mean anything at all we should at least reflect on why it is needed.
My favourite Baptism story concerns that most impressive Russian leader from the fifteenth century, now best known as Ivan the Great. I concede that like many stories from history that in this case at least some of the details are likely to be apocryphal. Nevertheless I find the story interesting even if parts are more parable than verified fact.
Ivan’s main claim to fame was the way he reunited the regions of Russia by a mixture of judicious force and skilful diplomacy. Having achieved his immediate goals in Russia he then turned his attentions to nearby territories. In those days organizing marriages between ruling families was a way of cementing relationships and accordingly Ivan sent his envoys out to find him a suitable bride.
The story has it that he envoys returned with a portrait of the daughter of the king of Greece and Ivan was sufficiently impressed with her beauty to decide she was a most suitable match. The King of Greece, although no doubt happy with the thought of such a powerful ally on his doorstep, was inclined to agree, but there was a problem. According to Greek custom, only a baptized member of the Greek Orthodox Church was allowed to marry the King’s daughter. The wily Ivan, perhaps seeing this as a cosmetic arrangement, was happy to oblige. He let the Greek King know that not only would he accept the challenge to be baptized, to show his goodwill (and we might suspect his sense of theatre), he would also have members of his personal bodyguard similarly baptized.
But… Oh dear. ..another catch. The Greek Orthodox Church could not accept soldiers who were still serving soldiers as candidates for baptism, since a baptised Christian was not allowed to kill. An impatient Ivan directed his advisors to find a solution – and one was found.
On the day of the baptism, Ivan entered the water with a Bishop of the Church and each member of his guard accompanied by a separate priest also went into the water. On the given signal each soldier raised their sword arm in the air – and was baptised by immersion for all but the sword arm.
The soldier was baptized but the un-baptized arm could still kill in the service of the Emperor.
Baptized – yet not quite totally baptized.
Is there not a parallel with what we find today? Most of us – (and I include myself here), can probably identify activities where our religious beliefs take a back seat to more immediate concerns. Quite apart from the continued attraction of the so called deadly sins, Church goers can be noticed demonstrating characteristics that put them in opposition to Jesus’ teaching.
There they are, storing up riches, taking thought for the morrow and holding grudges instead of forgiving those who wrong them, suggesting by their actions that baptism is insufficient to guarantee a consistent following of the way of Christ. Perhaps as a consequence most modern societies treat Baptism in a far more cavalier fashion. For example, these days all soldiers are expected to be allowed to kill the designated enemy – and I suspect if you were to approach their commander and explain that those under his command were unable to go into combat because as infants they had been baptized, the commander would refer you to the Army psychiatrist.
Very well then, if not for soldiers, what other context is expected to matter for baptism? Remember that baptism is also a public display of an intention not only not to kill but also to live in a different way, associated with a whole new way of life. As we reflect on our own lives it is fair to ask what changed or different characteristics an independent observer would notice about us as a result.
When it comes to baptizing a small child I don’t think it is being unnecessarily cynical to admit, at least in a typical worst case scenario, the action of baptism or christening is typically seen as a desirable custom rather than a genuine declaration of intent.
I have on occasion put it to a congregation that where the child is baptized and is subsequently brought up as a virtual stranger to the Church, this is roughly equivalent to going along to a sports muster day, signing the child up for a football or basketball team, and perhaps even paying the club fee, then never encouraging the child to turn up as a participant for the sport. If we find that silly – why do we not find encouraging baptism to be equally silly in the case where no difference in behaviour, or action, is intended.
No doubt what happens after infant Baptism is largely a parental responsibility yet if the words of a typical service are to mean anything, the responsibility goes rather wider than that. When the congregation is invited to vow that they will support the child being brought up in the faith but then do nothing to ensure that happens it also seems to me that the words of the service become empty and that the public vow is vacuous.
John the Baptist enjoined those he baptized “to bear fruit worthy of repentance”. This is a helpful reminder that Matthew’s use of the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, does not simply mean to be filled with penitent remorse – but actually suggests something closer to the Jewish equivalent word teshuva – meaning turn about face – or at least to undergo a change of mind or change of direction. We may well claim that has happened, but should still at least wonder if others might notice that the change is enough for others to see. If we can’t think of at least some evidence, honest reflection might encourage us to ask why not?
Although probably a majority of denominations still use the ceremony of baptism at least as a preliminary to the induction into the Christian faith, we might also pause to ask ourselves why some denominations teach it is not necessary. The Unitarians and Salvation Army for example do not practise the rite and before we, who do practice Baptism, insist that our customs are more correct, we must also be honest with ourselves in checking that we are the better Christians in the life expression of our faith as a consequence of our chosen belief.
Since some can start to live their Christianity without recourse to baptism we might also wonder whether baptism is critical in practice and may even need to be more relaxed about which form of baptism is absolutely essential, no matter what tradition might teach us. At the same time if we become aware that our course in life is not leading us in the direction our consciences tell us we ought to be heading, I wonder if we can just make out the words of John the Baptist echoing faintly down through the centuries, reminding us to bear the fruit of repentance …what was it again…. metanoia, the change of direction.