For several reasons — Clara and James prominent among them — I’ve been thinking much about baptism lately. These two beautiful children recently became my sister and brother in Christ: a little water, a little oil, some vows made by parents and Godparents, some prayers offered and the courts of heaven and Apostles Anglican Church resounded with joy. Every baptism is a mystery and a wonder, perhaps especially the baptism of an infant. But the concept and practice of infant baptism is also an affront. It assaults and insults me with the claim that this precious new life is but dust and will one day to dust return, that death is the common lot of all men because all men bear the consequence – if not the guilt – of Adam’s sin, and that true life depends on new life in Christ. “You must be born again – of water and the Spirit,” Jesus said and says still, and the church insists this applies to all – “innocent” children and hardened adults as well. Infant baptism weighs in the balance and finds wanting all our cherished convictions about human nature: that each child is a tabula rosa on which we may write only the good and pure, or that men are inherently good and pure from birth. Instead, every baptismal font proclaims that every infant presented there is a cracked and tarnished icon of God: an image bearer, yes, but one with the perfect image of a holy God distorted by every selfish and errant choice made by every ancestor far and near, throughout the genealogy of all the world – begotten in sin, born in sin, and living in a sin-conditioned world. Every helpless, speechless child carried to the water by others, spoken for by others, speaks volumes to us all: you are broken and you are helpless and you are utterly dependent on the gift and grace of Another. Baptism is never more fully sacramental than when an infant is presented, for there the work is clearly and solely God’s: no false pride of adult choice or will or wisdom – just helpless acquiescence to the weak ministrations of men and the mighty acts of God. Such a baptism shames us in our weakness and glorifies God in his strength, a strength shown chiefly in the stooping down of love.
If you do not find infant baptism an affront, I think you are not paying attention. It is a slap in the face of our culture – of any culture. And precisely in that lies the truth and the power and the beauty of this sacrament; it shows the depth of our vanity and the breadth of God’s love. We cannot walk – as the Prodigal – to Him, yet He runs – as the Father – to us. We cannot repent – as the good thief – and yet He promises us paradise this day and every day. We cannot say the words of the vows, yet we hear God speak – a thunderous whisper – This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased. If you do not find infant baptism an affront – and a joyous and marvelous gift of our gracious God – you are not paying attention. Thanks be to God for this sacrament.
Infant baptism is no less sacramental than adult baptism; it is not merely a sign or seal of something that will or might happen later.
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God (Article XXVII).
Something happens when an infant is baptized, and I find no reason to suppose that that something is different in degree or kind from what happens when an adult is baptized: new birth, new creation, forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, full membership in the body of Christ. If not these things, then what? If not these things, then why bother?
Some argue that an infant cannot have a personal faith in Jesus Christ and therefore cannot fully receive all the blessings of baptism. Perhaps the child receives only the promises of good things to come upon his or her adult affirmation of faith? I cannot agree. There was faith abounding at the baptism of the infant: the faith of the parents and Godparents that God loves this child even beyond their own human love, the faith of the church that proclaims the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and that intends for this child to be baptized, the faith of the priest who prays the prayers and pours the water and anoints with oil. Most of all, there is the faithfulness of Jesus into whose death and resurrection this child is baptized. Yes, at this moment it might be vicarious faith. But so was the faith of Mary and Martha that resulted in life for Lazarus. So was the faith of Jairus that resulted in life for his daughter. So was the faith of Tabitha’s friends that resulted in her life. Need we multiply examples? God honors faith. For some — adults obviously — baptism might be the result of a personal faith. For others — infants — baptism might be the beginning and source of faith. God alone knows; we have no need to.
In his book A Place of Healing for the Soul, Peter France writes about his own struggle with faith before and even during his adult baptism into the Orthodox Church on the Island of Patmos:
Fortunately for me the Orthodox Church accepts that nobody is ever completely ready for or worthy of a sacrament. The ceremony that was taking place was a help in getting there rather than a celebration of arrival.
Is an infant ready or worthy of baptism? Of course not, but then, who is? If France is correct — and I think he is — then baptism for an infant is a help in getting there — getting to a personal expression of faith in Christ — rather than a celebration of arrival. It is for all of us.
Photo: Public Domain.