I have a love/hate relationship with the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. I love it because I love that Jesus, though he knew no sin, insisted on being baptized anyway. I love that it was for him, like for all of us, a moment of communion with God and the reception of the Holy Spirit. I hate that it is so unlike a baptism that anyone other than Jesus could ever have. I hate that we have to preach it every year, on top of hearing the story of John the Baptist three, or even four, times in a year.
My real trouble with Jesus baptism is how unlike ours it is, but the reality is that this has less to do with Jesus and a whole lot to do with us and our ancestors in the Church. It is the direct result of more than a thousand years of bad theology that has created a cultural norm of infant baptism. Infant baptism is good, both of my girls were baptized at a young age. It can even be pedagogical, as my friend and colleague Evan Garner noted yesterday, but the fact of the matter is that it should not be the norm. The norm, as it was in the early Church and as it is now at least given lip-service to be in The Episcopal Church’s 1979 Prayer Book, is for older children or adults who are ready, willing, and able to take the vows of baptism for themselves. The need to “get the baby done” as Louis Weil so eloquently puts it, in order to save them from the stain of original sin lest they die and end up in limbo, purgatory, or worse yet, hell, has robbed most Christians of the opportunity to be an actual part of their own baptisms, other than looking cute and cooing at the appropriate points, of course.
Very few Christians have had the opportunity to come up from the water, literally in the case of immersion (again the historic norm) or figuratively in the case of ye olde sprinkling (the prevailing cultural model in Episcopal Churches) to see the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove. We’ve had the chance to remember God calling us “beloved” stolen from us by Augustine’s inability to keep it in his pants, and that’s a real shame. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe baptism to be a salvific event, but I do think that an ontological change can occur in baptism through the gift of the Holy Spirit, if we’d only give neophytes the opportunity by getting over our own anxiety and bad theology and return to the norms of the Christian Church from the very beginning.
The whole sale revision of our baptismal theology that came with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is older than I am (by at least a few months), but I don’t see even the beginning states of a real trend away from infant baptism now 35 years later. I hope it’ll change in my lifetime. I hope others will have the chance to experience baptism like Jesus did. I hope that in due time, the Church can get over the trouble with Jesus’ baptism.