Baptism is one of those things that started out being fairly simple and became increasingly complex. Nothing could have been much simpler than John the Baptist’s program of reform and commitment. The Messiah was coming, ushering in a new age. John called on people to get ready for the great Day of the Lord. Be baptized, he said. But let the outward baptism signify an inner change of heart and life. What could be plainer?
Jesus identified with John’s movement. It was not a mystery as to why he was baptized. He believed in the message that John was preaching and either saw himself as the fulfillment of it or supportive enough of it to engage in what John’s community clearly saw as the rite that glued them together.
According to the New Testament, Jesus did not baptize, but only his disciples. Even after the Jesus Movement became distinct from the Movement of John the Baptist, Jesus’ disciples continued to practice baptism, which, so far as we know, continued to mean what it had meant when John and his disciples had done it.
But then there came the death and resurrection of Jesus. One can imagine the first baptism that someone tried to administer after that. Going underneath the water and coming back up again—or having oneself thoroughly soused with poured water—all just looks too much like a death and a resurrection to be ignored. So very early on, Early Christians practiced baptism not just as an outward cleansing symbolizing an inner reformation, but as a kind of ritual death and rebirth. Candidates for baptism went down into the water nude, like babies from the womb or like corpses, take your pick. Down into the dark waters of death they went, crossing a river, as it were, that separated them from everything in the old life that they had left behind. They came up out of the water, were clothed in white, were anointed with oil, and were accepted into the fellowship of the New Community.
That, of course, was not the stopping place for the development of baptism. It was to go through numbers of changes through the ensuing centuries. But that point was the single most definitive stage in the history of baptism. From then on, it would be impossible to see baptism as essentially an individual thing. It was clearly an act of initiation into a community.
If the Church had remembered and believed that, Christian history would have gone quite differently from how it has. Baptism has been, at one time or another, tied up in ideas about sin and salvation, about heaven and hell, about who does and who does not get to receive Communion. I would argue that the single most important development in the last century in the Church was a thorough re-thinking of baptism. We pulled it from the realm of a precious little private ceremony done with fancy dresses and candles on a Saturday afternoon or some other such time, into the full, public liturgy of assembled Christians. We began reworking what it meant to be initiated into Christian community. We started imagining how we might become more conscious of baptism as a way of life, one that is ever-unfolding. We moved away from thinking of baptism as a discrete event, over and done with and soon forgotten. So it is possible today, at least among Episcopal congregations, to talk about “our baptismal covenant” and have a great many people actually know what you are talking about.
A part of this whole story was the emergence of the Baptism of Christ as a major festival, which we celebrate today. The Book of Common Prayer recognizes Epiphany as a season, not simply as “ordinary time.” The season is defined by two poles, both of which have to do with the revelation of the two natures of Christ, human and divine. One is the Baptism of Christ, always the First Sunday after the Epiphany, and the other is the Transfiguration of Christ, always the Last. Put it that way and suddenly the lights come on. What Jesus models for us is how human and divine natures can (and should) coexist in the same person and be at peace with one another. Without at all depreciating the specialness of Jesus, Eastern Christianity has always gotten that. The purpose of the whole process of salvation, they see, is theosis, or the divinization of the human being. One way of looking at that is to see that the whole point of membership in the Church is that we together take on the characteristics of God. Some of this is behavioral. But it is not merely behavioral. We don’t become like God just by being on our best behavior, but by allowing our minds to be changed, our spirits to be opened to mystery, our souls to be stretched. We are engaged in a process of continual transformation, a process that begins with baptism and extends into the life beyond death. It is not time-bound or body-bound. It is eternal. And every bit of us is caught up in the transformation brought about by the indescribable grace of God.
So what happens when we baptize an Oscar Malec, for example? Is there a way of understanding the event at the center of our liturgy today that brings all this stuff about baptism down to the piece of earth that Oscar and we occupy? Well, let’s talk about Oscar for a minute. First of all, Oscar was born into the human family a relatively short while ago. I remember it well. I went to see him and told Alys that even at a few days of age he was a son that Danny couldn’t deny. Oscar was a complete little human being, not defective at all. From the moment of birth he possessed the fullness of human nature, the same as everyone else. It happened that Oscar got sick last May when Pentecost rolled around and thus missed his baptism. But Oscar didn’t miss out on God’s love one mite by missing his baptism that day. He has continued to grow, to develop a distinct personality, and in his second year now, is beginning to evince more and more the characteristics of his parents. In fact Oscar has been very much a member of this community, despite the fact that he has not been baptized. No one would doubt that in practical terms. Indeed his Christian formation has already begun. Then why baptize him, you might ask. For the same reason that sometimes a couple who have shared quite a life together, sometimes for years, choose to get married formally and officially. They want to make public and explicit what has been informal and assumed. Baptism is the way that we formally initiate Oscar into the fellowship of Christ’s Body, the Church. In bringing him to baptism, his parents are specifically saying to us that Oscar now is ours as much as theirs, in a spiritual and pastoral sense. Their parental duties are not discharged fully. But our responsibility to a fellow member, Oscar, have now officially begun.
So how does this process of transformation, or theosis, or divinization take place in Oscar? And how can we tell that it is happening? Well, let’s be honest about it. Danny and Alys, his godparents, and the rest of us will do our best to bring him up to know and to love God. We’ll do that by giving him the opportunity to take his place in the assembly of Christians. By learning the Big Story of creation, fall, and redemption, Oscar will likely come to view his life in terms of that story. Through Godly Play, involvement in the liturgy, through interactions with others in the community, he will learn to meditate, to pray, to recognize when he falls short and to mark it with appropriate confession and repentance. He will learn little by little to live the story, perhaps first by trying on the costume of a shepherd or a sheep during a Christmas Eve liturgy, later by lighting and carrying candles, perhaps later still by reading lessons or, if he is musical, playing an instrument or singing. So it will go, and in the process, we hope, Oscar will learn some things about Jesus, and be attracted to Jesus enough to imitate him in his relationships. He will begin to observe and copy the behavior of his community and that of his family, so that striving for justice and peace will be for him a reality, not just an airy idea. With luck (we call it “grace,”) by the time Oscar is, say, eighteen or twenty, we will be able to look at him and say, “Oscar you are a real person. And we see Jesus’ life really living in you.”
Now, I am no prophet. But I am intuitive. And I suspect that there will be days in Oscar’s life when he will be anything but divine, or even cheaply angelic. I suspect that there may be in his future a suspension, a heartache, perhaps a heart-to-heart talk from his parents. That will be because Oscar is a real person, not because he is necessarily flawed (any more than any of us is flawed). But it won’t matter in the long run, because Oscar will be engaged in a process of taking on the characteristics of God. And one of those characteristics, perhaps the basic one, is being honest, being truthful. Living the life of God (being “divinized”) is not putting on an act and pretending a level of holiness that is not real. You can't have the Truth without God, and you can't have God without Truth. So becoming like God is being honest, being truthful, being totally without pretense, precisely because there is nothing to gain by pretending anything.
This is, of course, just a sketch of what Oscar’s life will be like. The sketch is far less interesting than the real work of art will be, and that is already in progress. But the sketch does have this value: it reveals, even in rough form, that Oscar, like all of us, is peculiarly created with the capacity of becoming something more than just the Oscar we see on the outside. There is a dimension to Oscar that we cannot see, though we know it is there because we have that dimension too. It is the dimension of surprising himself, and perhaps others, by exercising a love beyond ordinary expectations, care exceeding reasonable bounds, passion surpassing what human animals might be supposed to manifest, and a hope that only the courageous would dare exercise. Those things add up to a divine nature that, little by little, even rough-and-tumble little boys take on, to the point that they become themselves epiphanies of God, sons of the Most High in whom God is well pleased.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013