This is the first entry in our series on sacraments, beginning appropriately with baptism. Fr Simon Cuff encourages us to celebrate our baptismal anniversaries.
When was the last time someone wished you Happy Birthday? It would be a fair bet that it was on your birthday. I’m sorry to tell you that if you’re baptised they almost certainly chose the wrong day. Not because your birth certificate is mistaken, or your parents had a strange sense of humour, but as baptised people your physical birth wasn’t your gateway to life, your baptism was.
Baptism is a Sacrament of initiation, in which the newly baptised joins the Church in an unrepeatable way. Normally, administered by a priest or deacon, in extremis anyone can baptise if they intend the person to be baptised and use valid matter (the stuff of the Sacrament: water) and valid form (the words: ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’), fulfilling the command of Jesus in Matthew 28.19.
However, like all Sacraments, the true minister of the Sacrament is Christ. Christ works through the water and the words used to bring the newly Baptised to himself. This is why it’s not a matter of choice or discernment for those baptised young. It’s not a work of the will to choose baptism, but a work of the Spirit, both in calling to Baptism and Baptism itself. Baptism reminds us that God’s initiative takes the first place in all our life with him.
The New Testament witness is clear. Baptism does something. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus that ‘no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’ (John 3.5). The letter to Titus tells us that we’re saved, ‘not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3.5).
If we restrict baptism to rational choice, that choice all too easily becomes one of those works of righteousness that we’re told does nothing to endear us more or less to God. (Thankfully for those of us who so often get things wrong, he loves us not because of what we do but despite it!)
Baptism is the means by we which join the Church, the body of Christ. As S. Paul writes: ‘in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’ (1 Cor 12.13). He goes further, noting the consequence of membership of this body: ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3.27-8). The consequences of Baptism are profound. All the usual human ways of distinguishing between ourselves: race, class, gender are as nothing. All that matters is our standing in Christ. This post-Baptismal identity has a number of consequences for how we view each other in Christ. Often theologies fall back on the inherited distinctions of the world, and fail to think through what this radical unity across divides in Christ might mean.
A further consequence of Baptism robs one of our most profound fears of its power over us. At one level, we are all afraid of death. None of us enjoy thinking that one day will be our last. Very few people in our culture confront the reality of death, talking about our wishes with loved ones and preparing ourselves to die well.
Our Baptism means that whatever else prevents us from facing our mortality, it need not be fear. In the waters of the font we have already died, so we need not fear about undergoing death again. In Baptism, we are not just joined to Christ. We die with him. We are placed on the Cross with him and laid in the tomb. This isn’t obvious to our earthy senses. This is why St Paul has to remind the early Church in Rome: ‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?’ (Rom 6.3).
But baptism isn’t the end of life. As we’ve seen, it’s a beginning. We know that with Christ, death is never the end. Good Friday always gives way to Easter Day. ‘If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’ (Rom 6.5). Resurrection follows crucifixion. We died with Christ in Baptism. We rose with him in Baptism. ‘When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead’ (Col 2.12).
St Paul puts this another way in his second letter to the Corinthians. ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ (2 Cor 5.17). In Baptism, we are made new. We are a new creation.
This explains something of the oddity of Jesus’ own baptism. Why does the sinless one need to be washed clean from sins he hasn’t committed? Why does Christ need to be grafted onto Christ? He doesn’t. He’s baptised so that we might be washed from sin and grafted onto him.
His baptism by John the Baptist is an act of creation whereby he grabs hold of water for its hallowed purpose - to join all of us to himself. Just as God’s Word is active at the beginning of Creation, bringing order to the waters of chaos, so now. Here is Christ, the Word made flesh, repurposing water for our sake. Here is the voice of the Father pronouncing it as good. Here is the Spirit hovering over this new creation.
Christ grabs hold of waters so that he might grab hold of us. This is at the heart of the Sacramental system. We are stuff saved through stuff. Jesus doesn’t save us by an idea or a set of beliefs. He becomes one of us. He enters into our world of stuff and repurposes the very stuff of our selves. We are stuff saved by God through stuff. Baptism is the start of that salvation. Water is the stuff by which the stuff we call our bodies is repurposed into Christ.
Except, as human beings, we’re not very good at living this life of new creation. We sin. We get distracted by all the other stuff in creation that tempts and beguiles us. We live as if the old hasn’t passed away. We focus on feeding our earthly desires, and don’t live the risen life which was given to us in Baptism.
We forget that we have undergone a new birth at all. Then, we confess, and God is always ready forgive us. In fact, like the father in parable of the Prodigal Son he’s already rushing to meet us. We remember our place in Christ, our death in the waters of the front, and the new life given to us in the Resurrection, and we share in the new creation that is life with Christ once again. Until we sin again, and will need to be reminded once again of what happened to us in the waters of the font.
Your friends probably don’t know the date of your Baptism. You might not, but you should celebrate it with even more enthusiasm than the beginning of your earthly life. Your earthly life might only be several decades, the end of which you needn’t fear because of your death with Christ in Baptism. Your new life given to you in Christ will be for eternity. That’s worth celebrating.
So, find out the date of your baptism if you don’t know it, tell all your family and friends, put something refreshing on ice, sit back and wait for the presents and cards. Or, at the very least, think to yourself ‘Happy birthday!’ and enjoy living the new and risen life in Christ brings, even now. Now that’s good stuff!