The way we worship, what we do in the liturgy, is an expression of what we believe and shapes what we believe.
I was 41 years old, and had been ordained as a priest for 5 years before I ever even witnessed a baptism by immersion. This despite the long-standing practice of baptism by immersion in the ancient church, despite the practice in the Anabaptist traditions, despite rubrics for baptism in that same Book of Common Prayer:
Each candidate is presented by name to the Celebrant, or to an assisting priest of deacon, who then immerses, or pours water upon, the candidate, saying, “N. I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Despite all that, baptisms by immersion are not common in the Episcopal Church.
This is in part due to our church architecture. We are the inheritors of baptismal fonts that are designed to hold bowls of water, not tubs.
Throughout the 19th century, when Victorian propriety and formality were in full bloom, baptisms became formal private family affairs. Even when elegant flowing baptismal gowns couldn’t be had, there was a sense of propriety and delicacy. The practice of a light, symbolic, sprinkling of water evolved — for infants and adults alike.
Form followed function, of course. A lot of the churches we worship in today were built in that Victorian era, and in the century that followed. These churches were built with relatively small baptismal fonts up by the pulpit, or in the back by the west door of the church, at the point of entry, so that the family could easily gather around.
Gone from Episcopal and Anglican Church architecture for a hundred years or more, were the baptistries, the pools, that would allow for immersion. Until the liturgical renewal movement of the mid-twentieth century got Anglicans and most of the rest of Christendom looking back at our liturgical past, bringing back to the present those things that made liturgical and theological sense — baptism by immersion, for example.
Those who studied the liturgy realized that, in the move from immersion to sprinkling, something big had been lost. Something very big.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
This death and resurrection is especially made plain when an infant is baptized by immersion.
The baptismal pool is filled, with warm water. The whole congregation gathers round, with the children of the congregation at the water’s edge, by the side of the tub. The parents are a bit nervous. And probably a bit scared. They are about to hand their precious and vulnerable infant into the hands of a priest who is going to put that infant under water. There is a definite sense of possible drowning in the minds of the parents, and also of those who are gathered — especially those who have never witnessed a baptism by immersion before.
And, theologically at least, drowning is exactly what happens when we are baptized. And baptism is indeed about vulnerability. And about death. And about giving ourselves over to God and to the Church.
This is made very real when nervous and fearful parents unwrap the towels from around their little infant and hand the naked child over to the priest. The priest, declaring the name of the child, sweeps the child through the water, saying:
I baptize you, in the Name of the Father ….
On first pass, the infant is startled by the water, especially if it’s cold. Its eyes pop wide open, then close tightly shut. Most often, at this point, the infant lets out a scream. The trusting, yet frightened, mother holds her breath.
And of the Son ….
On the second pass, all alarms inside the infant and parents and much of the congregation go off. This is counter-intuitive. It seems almost cruel. What are we doing here?
And of the Holy Spirit.
Plunge! On its back, head first, deeper down into the water goes the startled and frightened child. All that is known and comforting and familiar is stripped away. The priest and all watching see the head go down, down, down into the water.
It is only for a passing second, yet it seems frozen in time.
Death. Death is what happens in that moment.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
That is what we Christians proclaim. In our baptism we die to the ways of sin. We die to all that would strive to separate us from God and from one another. We die to the forces of wickedness that conspire to claims us. That is what our Jesus made real for us when he willingly went to his death on a cross on a hill far away in a time long ago. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
Good Friday at the font.
But Jesus did not stay on the cross did he? He did not stay in the grave.
And the infant does not stay in the water.
The three days pass. The moment passes.
And Swhoosh…. The infant is passed through the water and the waters of death become the waters of birth. We do not drown in the waters of baptism. We pass through the waters of baptism. And as we do, we are born anew. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Here, the imagery is breath-taking (literally). The people, the parents, see the baby on this third sweep. Eyes are closed tight, fists are clenched, and as the infant goes through the water, they see it, see it plain. This same infant six weeks ago, six months ago, was passing naked through the waters of birth, emerging from its mother’s womb.
That’s it! Baptism is being born! Being born into Christ’s resurrection, being born into the new life, being born in the body of Christ, the Church. That’s it!
And in that moment, something else that the church talks about becomes profoundly real: Through our baptism, each and every one of us who has been baptized, does, in fact, become a member of the Body.
We are, in fact, brothers and sisters in Christ. We have all emerged from the same womb! We have all passed through the same birthing waters! We have all become one body.
The baby is lifted high, and the gathered congregation shouts, “AMEN!”
The sealing oil is poured over the infant’s head, and the infant is marked with the sign of the cross, marked as Christ’s own forever, wrapped in fresh white towels, and given over to the loving arms of its parents, or, better yet, its Godparents.
The newly baptized is welcomed, the Peace of the Lord is shared, and the celebrant, using the pool as aspergillium, casts water upon the congregation, reminding them that they, too, are baptized.
“…. Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit.” (From the Catechism BCP 1979, p. 858)
The imagery is vivid in the baptism of an infant by immersion. Imagery not lost, perhaps, but certainly diminished in small bowls, sprinkled water, and fine gowns.
And it doesn’t stop there. Once we have witnessed such a baptism by immersion, it carries over into the Eucharist, the gathering of the baptized at the altar of God, Sunday after Sunday. What we see there, then, is brothers and sisters, born of the same womb as we ourselves, members of the one Body, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.
The way we worship, what we do in the liturgy, is an expression of what we believe and shapes what we believe. Baptizing infants by immersion can profoundly express and shape what we believe about ourselves as baptized people, born again.
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar, The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, Carrboro, North Carolina