Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Affront of Baptism

A dear Christian brother – a young priest with a pastor’s heart and a theologian’s mind – plans to baptize his infant daughter within weeks. Frankly, I find the concept and practice of infant baptism an affront. It assaults and insults me with the claim that this precious new life is but dust and will one day to dust return, that death is the common lot of all men because all men bear the consequence – if not the guilt – of Adam’s sin, and that true life depends on new life in Christ. “You must be born again – of water and the Spirit,” Jesus said and says still, and the church insists this applies to all – “innocent” children and hardened adults as well. Infant baptism weighs in the balance and finds wanting all our cherished convictions about human nature: that each child is a tabula rosa on which we may write only the good and pure, or that men are inherently good and pure from birth. Instead, every baptismal font proclaims that every infant presented there is a cracked and tarnished icon of God: an image bearer, yes, but one with the perfect image of a holy God distorted by every selfish and errant choice made by every ancestor far and near, throughout the genealogy of all the world – begotten in sin, born in sin, and living in a sin-conditioned world. Every helpless, speechless child carried to the water by others, spoken for by others, speaks volumes to us all: you are broken and you are helpless and you are utterly dependent on the gift and grace of Another. Baptism is never more fully sacramental than when an infant is presented, for there the work is clearly and solely God’s: no false pride of adult choice or will or wisdom – just helpless acquiescence to the weak ministrations of men and the mighty acts of God. Such a baptism shames us in our weakness and glorifies God in his strength, a strength shown chiefly in the stooping down of love.

If you do not find infant baptism an affront, you are not paying attention. It is a slap in the face of our culture – of any culture. And precisely in that lies the truth and the power and the beauty of this sacrament; it shows the depth of our vanity and the breadth of God’s love. We cannot walk – as the Prodigal – to him, yet he runs – as the Father – to us. We cannot repent – as the good thief – and yet he promises us paradise this day and every day. We cannot say the words of the vows, yet we hear God speak – a thunderous whisper – This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased. If you do not find infant baptism an affront – and a joyous and marvelous gift of our gracious God – you are not paying attention. Thanks be to God for this sacrament.

My brother had planned the baptism for Pentecost – the great holy day of Spirit and church – but logistics conspired to make that impossible. Though disappointed, he knows there will be other holy days. He knows that any day on which the church baptizes is made holy by the very act of baptism: On this day the Lord has acted. We will rejoice and be glad in it. What is a holy day if not a day on which God has acted and on which we stop to rejoice? Certainly, then, baptism must render a day holy.

Perhaps, then, instead of seeking out established holy days for baptism, we should look for ordinary days, or even days of infamy, to redeem through baptism. Redeem the time, we are told, for the days are evil (Eph 5:12). Let us baptize on the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, striving to add one new life for every life taken. Let us baptize on the anniversary of 9-11, building for the kingdom of heaven even as the kingdoms of the earth were shaken to the core. Or let us simply seek through baptism to make holy every day that the world – and too often the church – considers ordinary, as if any day on which God says, “Let there be light,” could be anything less than extraordinary.

Any day my brother chooses for the baptism will become a holy day – St. Madeleine’s day – and saints in heaven and saints on earth will rejoice, and the calendar of eternity will mark the feast.

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