Baptism for What?
The most thought provoking story I know regarding baptism comes from the days when royalty used marriage as a means of establishing new alliances and when only those who were particularly high born were considered good enough as life partners for the most significant leaders. Perhaps I should add that there are so many different versions of the story in circulation that I cannot be certain of the historical accuracy of this account but even if it has a good dollop of legend, like a parable it still has a very important truth to teach.
It is said that when it was Ivan the Terrible’s turn for his royal marriage there was no way he was going to waste time for the tedious business of extensive and arduous travel to select a consort. He dispatched some trusted advisors to visit a number of royal houses. After many weeks the advisors had returned from a Greek court with a picture of a Princess looking for all the world like what just a few years ago we might have called the perfect ten. Unfortunately there was a catch. The princess certainly looked attractive enough, but because those of her dynasty were members of the Greek Orthodox Church, their rules were clear. Only one who was a member of the Greek orthodox Church would be acceptable as a marriage partner for a princess from a Greek court, and very clearly Ivan, as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, was ineligible……. unless he was prepared to have himself baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith.
Ivan on the other hand was profoundly impressed with her picture and was not about to give up that easily, particularly as he appeared to have a somewhat cynical view of the meaning of religion. After giving the matter some thought he decided he would convert, undergo public baptism and in an extraordinarily magnanimous gesture, (or perhaps just an appreciation of a sense of theatre) decided that his personal bodyguard of crack soldiers should also be baptised into the Greek Orthodox faith. That sounded good in theory but the Greek Orthodox Priests raised an objection.
Once a person was baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith they were forbidden from taking life. Soldiers could not therefore be baptized while still in service. Well this was a total diplomatic impasse. ” Sort it out”, said Ivan, and his advisors went into a huddle. After a few hours they came up with a solution. Ivan’s baptism ceremony went ahead. On the given day, some accounts say two hundred of Ivan’s bodyguard went into the water with their Czar – each soldier accompanied by a Greek Orthodox priest. On the given signal each was to be baptized by total immersion…. yet not quite total – at the signal each soldier drew their sword and held their sword arm on high so that their whole body was baptized apart from the sword and the sword arm – which could then still be used in Ivan’s service.
This is of course makes a mockery of the real spirit of baptism – and we would probably agree that there was similar mockery in Ivan the Terrible’s subsequent action of forcibly baptizing those whose loyalty he wished to guarantee.
I suspect that today Baptism for most has become so automatic and symbolic that few would even understand how such issues might ever be a problem. Baptism is no longer such a big deal. In fact, for many, I would suggest Baptism is not even considered to have any implications for subsequent moral choices. I can’t imagine a soldier drafted into the army gaining exemption from active service on the grounds that he or she had been baptized. Nor for that matter is there any law that places different expectations on the behaviour of the baptized. It may not be a sword arm which is exempted from baptism but I guess we all know those whose questionable behaviour after baptism would be hard to distinguish from that which occurred before.
Over the centuries there have been many times when even church leaders have lost sight of the mission their baptism has signified. A few years ago (Christmas 2011) an event in Bethlehem should give us pause for thought. The international press reported on the annual Christmas clean up of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity where priests from the Greek Orthodox and Armenian congregations attacked each other with brooms and had to be pacified by club wielding Palestinian Police. The Police Chief Lieutenant Colonel Khaled al-Tamimi explained there were no arrests made because the protagonists were men of God(!), and he added that such scuffles were by no means unusual since the 6th Century holy site had been administered by the Latin, Orthodox and Armenian churches each anxious to vigorously protect their interests against incursions by their rivals.
Nevertheless it is interesting to reflect on the way that many are reluctant to allow the baptismal vows to direct subsequent life decisions.
To help sharpen our thinking we might also contrast the Baptism of Jesus with what has become the pattern of Baptism in many Churches today.
First there was Jesus’ chosen celebrant. John the Baptist obviously felt a strong call to baptize. Indeed some scholars have suggested that John may even have been a member of the Qumran sect whose members felt a need to baptize themselves on a daily basis. However from the description of John in a number of places in the gospels it is very clear that unlike typical celebrants today, it is very likely that John was both uneducated and unrecognized by the formal Church hierarchy. John himself is recorded as being acutely aware that he perceived Jesus his superior – and therefore as he said, if Jesus was going to insist on baptism it should be he, John, who was receiving the ceremony at the hands of Jesus. The best he could offer Jesus in baptism was informal in the extreme.
Second, there was the contrast of venue. The river Jordan today is slow moving, with pitiful flow and heavily polluted from farming and domestic effluent. Even in Jesus’ day there is nothing to suggest the River Jordan was anything like the clear flowing crystal waters portrayed in religious art. Soren Kierkegaard is clearly discomforted with the way in which modern Church practice has taken the concept of baptism and rarefied it to the point where it is virtually unrecognizable.
As Kierkegaard saw it:”A silken priest with an elegant gesture sprinkles water three times on the dear little baby and dries his hands gracefully with a towel” Now contrast that familiar picture with a roughly dressed, and I suspect coarsely spoken and wild eyed, John the Baptist grasping his intended subject on the head and pushing him under the surface of a weedy and dirty river.
The third and let me stress – the most important contrast, is the conveyed sense of purpose and change. Today’s refined version of baptism typically resembles gentle acknowledgement of family position on Church, and in no way normally seen as the dedication to beginning of a serious mission in which family considerations are pushed to the background. That Jesus should have chosen this particular ceremony to mark the official start of what was to follow is interesting in itself but we should not let this distract us from the fact that it was a plunge into a new way of life and not just a plunge into a river. The baptism may indeed have been the chosen ceremony but without the mission that followed, even Jesus’ baptism would have been an empty gesture.
This is not necessarily to decry what the act of baptism has now become. For example the act of infant baptism is traced back to the dark ages when disease and hunger took all too many children. It is true that in those days a certain amount of superstition was attached to the urgency to have the children baptized in case baptism was needed to get them into the kingdom of heaven – but it was also a statement that the parents cared for their children and were trying to do the best for them. The service as it developed asked the family and those who supported the family to vow to bring them up in the fellowship of the church and in the love of God.
Fortunately, despite all those who regard baptism as a casual rite of passage there are others who accept the intended meaning of the vows and do their very best to deliver on their promises. When this happens it can be a very positive influence.
If we look at the words for adult baptism there is a similar call for commitment, both on the part of the one to be baptized and on the part of those in support. That the vows are often ignored by some subsequently is not in question. But just as clearly, again at least a few take such vows seriously and the marks of Christ are easy to discern in the lives which develop.
Since in a typical Church there are probably as many different views on baptism as there are congregation members it maybe that the reflection on what it means in practice is not so much a question to be answered from the pulpit, as by individuals in examination of their own conscience. Many present today will have either had the choice for baptism made on their behalf when they were children , by parents or guardians or perhaps later they were able to decide for themselves as adults. Many will also have later formally confirmed that decision in taking on the responsibilities as Church members.
I therefore invite a moment of reflection. Has that baptism made a clear difference to the life choices which have been faced since the baptismal act? And for those of us privileged to be present at a baptism in a support role as relatives or congregational members, when we too have been asked for our promise, has the promise borne fruit in action? As already mentioned, for Jesus the plunge into the Jordan was the beginning of a plunge into personal mission. What have the waters of baptism signified for you?