Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord and begin with Isaiah. God speaks of “my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.” He will bring true justice, open the eyes of the blind, free captives from prison, and bring light to those in darkness. Matthew’s Gospel describes Jesus being baptized by John. John expressed surprised at this and suggested Jesus should baptized John. Jesus replied: “Leave it like this for the time being it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.” After being baptized the heavens opened up and the Spirit of God came upon him and a voice called out: “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him.”
Few events happen across the spectrum of different Christian denominations with more uniformity than baptism. In fairness, nearly all denominations interpret this passage from Matthew the same way: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And in an amazing show of cooperation and mutual respect, most Christian denominations recognize the baptisms of each other.
I’ve said this before, but when I was a child I found great amusement in listening to adults attempt to explain doctrines, and baptism was no exception. For much of Christian history many of us were taught about “original sin.” This was the belief that the disobedience of Adam and Eve left a stain on every newborn and this stain not only condemned the infant to a life of depravity and sin but that this stain would block any chance of entry into salvation.
Frankly, at least in the Catholic Church, this turned into a mess and we probably should have seen this coming. Within a few centuries after these readings there developed an urgency to baptize a newborn as soon as possible “in case something happened.” For most of our history we’ve seen infant morality as an unfortunate reality and it didn’t take long for grieving parents to begin to ask what happened to children who died before they were baptized. In my family this became personal. My great aunt married in 1936 gave birth to a child shortly after. The baby (I never learned the sex) was stillborn and the priest at her church refused to allow the child to be buried in the Catholic cemetery. To her credit my great aunt waited for that pastor to leave and plead her case to the new pastor who gave permission to have her baby exhumed and buried in the Catholic cemetery. I applaud him for that.
The outcry of grieving parents who were horrified at the prospect of damnation of their children resulted in a truly inane possibility: Limbo. Unbaptized children wouldn’t enjoy the love of salvation but neither would they suffer the pain of damnation. Instead they would spend eternity in a place of neither God’s love nor Satan’s punishment, but a place of … nothing. We called it Limbo, and (mercifully) the church abandoned her belief in Limbo in 2007. Limbo was never an official doctrine of the Church but it was a commonly held belief.
I don’t wish to trigger flashbacks of those of a certain age, and I’m grateful that generations of us never had to suffer with the fear of losing a child before baptism. But it also raised a fascinating question about Jesus’ baptism. If Jesus was indeed “like us in all things but sin” why on earth would he need to be baptized? If his divinity dodged Original Sin that we were all born with, what did his baptism cleanse?
As a child it was explained to me that Jesus was “just pretending” to need to be baptized, a way to show that he was humble enough to go through the motions, that nobody could claim to not need baptism because, after all, even Jesus was baptized.
I’ve been working in ministry for nearly 40 years and I’ve been pleased with the progress I’ve seen. And I love the progress I’ve seen in our understanding of baptism. I’ve seen our understanding of baptism change from “we’re washing away the Original Sin that will prevent your salvation” to “we’re bathing you in God’s love and welcoming you into a community who loves you and is committed to raising you in that love.”
Since the Protestant Reformation some denominations have postponed baptism until adolescence believing that it should be both voluntary and desired. I appreciate that they abandoned the idea of Limbo, but this teaching also troubles me.
Several years ago I had a conversation with another Catholic, a father of two sons, who suggested that we should postpone baptism until the person is capable of asking for it. I understood what he was talking about but here’s what I told him: A child is born not only into a family, but also in several communities. The child is born into an extended family, a neighborhood, a state, etc. But this child is also born into a faith community who can’t wait to accept him or her.
I told him this: when your sons were born they didn’t know who we were, or even who they were, but we knew who they were and we welcomed them. Their baptisms didn’t mean that they accepted us but that we accepted them. We committed to them before they were able to commit to us, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
I remember well attending mass when the priest told us that we were going to participate in a baptism. He took the infant in his arms and said this: “This is Joseph. He was born several weeks ago and his parents have brought him to mass these last few Sundays. Joseph likes us and wants to stay, and I wish to baptism him. Do you agree?” We did.
In the old understanding baptism was about exclusion: who gets Salvation and who doesn’t. But I suggest that our new understanding sees baptism about inclusion.
Baptism shouldn’t be about requirements. Is this baby good enough? Is the baby’s parents good enough? Have they done enough or given enough or believed enough?
Instead we should ask this: Is this baby loved enough? If God has consented enough for this baby to be born and Jesus has consented enough to include this baby in his plan of salvation, should we celebrate this?
I think we should.