What is baptism?
In the early Church, candidates for baptism gathered in the dark of night, naked, to wade into the deep. This was no conventional rite. They threw off their clothes to show themselves naked before God—without secrets, without shame. As one ancient writer says, ‘Casting off these fading leaves which veil our lives, we should once again present ourselves before the eyes of our Maker.” The candidates came to wash away the stain of lives lived hard and intemperately, the sin that seems to sit in the flesh.
They called this washing a rebirth. They said that they were putting on Christ, like a garment to clothe their nakedness; and, indeed, coming up from the waters, they received a brilliant white robe. Sometimes they spoke darkly of the deep waters of death. They went down to the waters to die—a kind of symbolic drowning. They would die to their old life, to their old self, with all its sin and disappointment, and rise up new people.
These were mystical waters—waters for the “mystical washing away of sin” (Book of Common Prayer 1662, “Public Baptism of Infants”)
Perhaps you wonder why we should baptise infants, who haven’t lived long enough to sin—let alone to mess it up completely. It is quite right to say that infants do not sin. [Yet our teachers say that, deep in all of us, there is an ancient wound: we are tempted to fill up our heart-hungers with false satisfactions. We desire inordinately. And from the hunger of our heart comes social sin—a whole culture of sinfulness.]
Yes, even little children must go down to the waters—not for cleansing from their own sins, but for cleansing from social sin. Even in the heart of an infant, social sin has a mysterious anchorage. It is the sin into which they were born, and in which they grow.
There are so many lures for our greed, our pride, our possessiveness. There are so many promises of happiness which come to nothing. So many false satisfactions. All that shopping, defensiveness, and striving only makes for spiritual exhaustion. Our hearts grow dry and we cry out for water!
In baptism we receive living waters, the Holy Spirit of God. We receive the Spirit of life and growth and power. By this power we shall grow up like a watered tree, “rooted in charity,” (ibid) offering our strength and shelter to many people. We will rise up, becoming people for others. We will grow into the true dimensions of our personality. We will become fruitful. All this is possible for people who, by the power of the Spirit, live lives of simplicity, humility and discernment.
I sign you with the sign of the cross, to show that you are marked as Christ’s own forever. So we are anointed prophets, priests and kings. We take our place in the new society of the Church.
And we receive a candle of enlightenment, to show that we walk by the light of Christ. This is not the end of our journey, but the beginning. We are wayfarers. And sometimes, when the way becomes dark and trackless, we will need the light. We will be tested. We will need discernment.
By God’s help, and with the guidance of their parents and godparents, little children will make it to their confirmation. Then they will renounce greed, pride and possessiveness for themselves.
Almighty and everlasting God, who of thy great mercy didst save Noah and his family in the ark from perishing by water; and also didst safely lead the children of Israel thy people through the Red Sea, figuring thereby thy holy Baptism; and by the Baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ in the river Jordan, didst sanctify Water to the mystical washing away of sin; We beseech thee, for thine infinite mercies, that thou wilt mercifully look upon this child; wash her and sanctify her with the Holy Ghost; that she being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being steadfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally she may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
–Book of Common Prayer (1662)