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What are we doing, and why, in infant baptism?

We say that baptism is indelible, that the person who is baptized in the name of the Trinity, with water and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, is marked as Christ’s own forever. But an infant doesn’t know what is happening and he won’t remember anything about this day. So why do we do it, and why do we believe it is effectual?

How many of us can remember our baptism? If you were baptized as a baby, as is common in most traditions of the Christian faith, any memories you have of your baptism were given you by your parents and family — through pictures taken and preserved and stories told about the day. And, above all, by the fact they continued in the Christian faith and life and brought you up to know and love the Lord, just as they promised they would do. You have an imprinted memory, so to speak, and it becomes part of who you are, your identity. And you have witnessed other little children being baptized if you are brought up in a congregation.

When I was preparing a family for baptism the day before the service recently, the baby’s 5-year-old brother asked, “What is ‘getting baptized’?” I replied, “Getting baptized means that you are being brought into Jesus’ family. We did it for you and for your sisters and now are doing it for your brother.” That seemed to make sense to him. There’s a lot more, of course, to say to an older child or an adult, but we should not, I think, make light of what it means to even very young children to know that they were baptized.

A case in point concerns a friend I met during clinical pastoral education. A man in my group was studying to become a Roman Catholic priest. He told us of a time when he was at loose ends, wondering what to do with his life after serving in the U.S. Air Force and finishing college, it came to him that he was special to God because he was baptized as an infant. He said it became very meaningful to him that his parents, who later split up and were no longer very close to him, loved him enough, and had enough faith in Christ and the Church, that they had him baptized and then brought him up attending church, at least sporadically. He “rekindled his faith,” as St. Paul urged Timothy to do (2 Tim. 1:6). Being a follower of Christ became the center of his identity. Soon he heard God calling him to serve his Church as a priest.

As St.Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Eunice, we are told in Acts, was a convert to Christianity who married a Greek, perhaps before her conversion. What they implanted in Timothy was their Jewish faith in the One God who made heaven and earth and called Israel to be his people. But the faith they all now share is the good news of the Messiah, Jesus, whose message of salvation is to Greeks as well as his fellow Jews. Notice it is Timothy’s mother and grandmother to whom Paul refers, testimony to the new order in which women are as important as men in living and spreading the gospel. The new faith of Christianity had broken the mold of patriarchy, however much the later history of the organized Church sought to reinstitute it.

Consider St. Paul’s words about the faith of the grandmother and mother and Timothy. Faith lived in them, and therefore our faith lives in us. Jesus tells his disciples that even faith as small as a mustard seed can uproot trees. If our faith, however small and delicate, is alive then we can and do pass on our faith to our children; they will catch it like a virus from living with us. They grow up knowing to whom we pray and in whom we put our trust:  the God who created us and has a purpose for our lives. And thus they know where to place their trust and to whom to pray.

No matter if you came into this world after years of waiting and hoping or as a big surprise, your parents also brought you to baptism because they knew that you were a gift from God. As the psalmist said, so they believed: “It is he that hath made us and not we ourselves”; God “knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Indeed Eve, “the mother of all living,” said of her firstborn, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”

Expressing gratitude completes the gift, as C.S. Lewis reminds us. Saying thank you is a crucial part of owning a blessing. By bringing their child to baptism, parents are publicly expressing gratitude to God for this new life and acknowledging that their child is not just their offspring but part of God’s plan for the redemption of the world. As Carl Sandburg put it: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

A baby is baptized because Jesus told his disciples to go forth and baptize all people in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. He does not mention any ideal age for baptism, but we know he shared our humanity every step of the way, starting out like the rest of us as a helpless baby born of a human mother. Some might say, however, that if baptism is the washing away of sin, why baptize a baby who hasn’t had the time to commit any yet? Why not wait till there’s a large ledger of sin that needs scrubbing?

On the other hand, there was a point in the early history of the Christian faith when people deliberately waited until they were near death to be baptized because they feared sinning again after baptism. We are told that was true of the Emperor Constantine, for example. And there was great controversy about what to do with members of the congregation who were notorious sinners after baptism, even sometimes the clergy. Were they lost or could they be restored? The church decided that even notorious sinners could repent and return, forgiven, to the body of Christ. There must be something more to it than scrubbing away of sins.

Let’s remember that Jesus, who was totally without sin, asked to be baptized by his cousin John. Surely he was thus expressing his solidarity with all people of any age and in every age; sooner or later we all sin and fall short, as St. Paul said, even adorable babies. We are expressing a presumably sinless child’s solidarity with the rest of humanity. But there is more to it than that. We believe that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are yet did not sin, as the author of Hebrews puts it. Think about it: Jesus was capable of sinning, else he would not have been temped — nothing would have fazed him, as we say today. The temptations recorded in the Gospels came after he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness where he met the tempter. Jesus prevailed and silenced Satan, but we are told Satan withdrew until an opportune time. The night in the Garden of Gethsemane? The trials? The day of crucifixion?

A little child’s temptations will also come after he is baptized, and a newly baptized adult may find that temptations increase. With the gift and consolation of the Holy Spirit, we believe, those temptations and failings need not drag anyone down into despair. Again, the author of Hebrews assures us that, precisely because Jesus was tempted in every way as we are and did not sin, he can sympathize with us sinners — not condemn us for being weaker than he was, but sympathize with us and offer intercession at the throne of God on our behalf.

We pray that a child will reaffirm and rekindle her faith as she grows up and that she discerns God’s hand guiding her along the way, even when she fails and falls. We ask: “When you fall into sin, will you repent and return to the Lord?” Not if you sin, but when. A child needs a Savior, just as the rest of us older sinners do. Repentance and return restore each of us, whatever our age, to our rightful place in the household of God as his beloved child.

Finally, whether we are infants or children or adults when we are baptized, we are baptized into the faith of Christ crucified, resurrected, and alive and active in this world he has redeemed. In the prayer book’s baptismal liturgy, the whole congregation reaffirms the words of the Apostles’ Creed that is founded on the Baptismal Creed of the early Church in Jerusalem, bringing to life in our ceremony the Communion of Saints that binds together the faithful on Earth and in heaven, and extends to generations yet unborn. In baptism we are grafted into that faithful cloud of witnesses; and they, who have been tempted and who repented and returned when they failed, are encouraging us as we run our race.

Immediately after the baptism, while anointing the head of the newly baptized with holy oil, the celebrant says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

We should all remind ourselves of that every day, in the words of the beloved hymn:

The soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose
I will not, I will not, desert to its foes.
That soul though all Hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never, forsake.


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