Welcome to 2018! As we begin the new year in the church we are still in the midst of the Christmas celebration. The twelve days of Christmas end on January 6th, the day of Epiphany. Sunday, January 7th is The Baptism of our Lord. At the beginning of a new year, I think it appropriate to talk about the rite of Baptism, a sign of cleansing and rebirth and renewal.
Baptism is something that is really misunderstood by many. Not by any fault of the church’s teachings for we can only be taught what we understand at the time. The church is only recently (within the last 40 years) beginning to understand and return the rite to its original significance in the life of an individual.
The most common perception that most Lutherans have of baptism is that it is an act that prepares the baptismal candidate for death, that is a “ticket to heaven” upon one’s death. This is most likely the result of a fear that developed back in the 600’s because of a high infant mortality rate. Parents were concerned that their unbaptized child might not go to heaven if they died.
“Since the beginning of the third century in the West, Baptism has usually been celebrated as a part of the Easter Vigil, which followed a period of instruction that often lasted three years. (Lent developed in the church year as the final, most intense period of instruction prior to Baptism at the Easter Vigil.) Although baptismal practices varied somewhat from a renunciation of evil and an affirmation of faith, a threefold immersion in the water in the name of the Trinity, anointing with oil, and being clothed in a white garment; the newly baptized then received first Communion with the congregation at the Easter Vigil.”
As time went on, Baptismal practices began to change and the multiple meanings of Baptism became less apparent, hidden by the reduction in the parts of the rite itself. “Pouring of the baptismal water…largely replaced immersion by the fourteenth century, and the rite became visually less significant. In some places, pouring was eventually replaced by an even more minimal practice of sprinkling. In addition, the ritual actions related to the gift of the Spirit became separated from Baptism and were done in a separate rite known as confirmation. Medieval baptismal practice as well as baptismal theology deteriorated; less water was used, fonts became smaller and smaller, and the baptismal rite became increasingly pedantic.”
Martin Luther recognized the deterioration of the theological and ritual aspects of baptism and instituted what is known as the “Flood Prayer” over the water and encouraged the practice of immersion over pouring. “Not until the liturgical and ecumenical movements of the twentieth century, however, did the biblical theology of Baptism and the rich baptismal practice of the early church begin to be restored. The baptismal rite in the LBW reflects that restoration.”
The rite of baptism as it is printed in the LBW and the newest worship book, the ELW, reflect the greater intent of baptism as done in the early church. “The totality of these words and actions – not just the water bath – constitutes Holy Baptism.”
Daniel Erlander, in his booklet “Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life” says this about baptism: “In the baptismal water we died with Christ. We were crucified and buried in order that we might be raised with Christ to live the new life, to dwell in a new reality, a new order of existence. Because of Baptism we are Christians. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel; having the right experience; being free of doubts; what we accomplish; our success or our position. We are Christians because God surprised us. Coming in water, God washed us and grafted us into Christ. Our identity for all the days of our life is set! We are children of God, priests of the King, disciples of Christ, a servant people, a holy nation, the communion of saints, the followers of the Way, proclaimers of the wonderful deeds of God. Jesus’ story becomes our story. Baptized into his death, we are raised to live as the Body of Christ in the world today.”
Baptism welcomes us into the Christian faith. There is a covenant responsibility on our part to live a baptismal life. This means, in part, faithfully coming to worship, learning and growing in our understanding of our faith, reading the Bible, receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion and living in community with the Church – to paraphrase the promise made in baptism as found on page 121 of the LBW.
At a funeral the pastor says “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (LBW, p. 206)
So you see, Baptism not only unites us in the death and resurrection of Jesus (a future event), but welcomes us into the Body of Christ, the Church, and calls us to active participation in that Body. Baptism is a way of life for the Christian. Each and every day, remember that you are baptized. As Martin Luther makes clear for us in the Small Catechism: “It [Baptism] signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” (emphasis added)
(quotations in italics are from “Worship Wordbook,” Augsburg Fortress, Copyright 1995)