[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and popular literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Faith is the womb that conceives this new life, baptism the rebirth by which it is brought forth into the light of day. The church is its nurse, her teachings are its milk, the bread from heaven is its food.
Gregory of Nyssa’s words are both beguiling and poetic, but in my own urban context, those who bring their children forward for ‘baptism’ often seem to understand it through two, less theologically nuanced notions: Firstly, as something fundamentally privatised and individualistic, that is, as a moment of blessing between a person (typically a baby, but not exclusively so) & God; Secondly, as the socially ‘done-thing’. That is, a remnant of a kind of folk religion. For ‘getting the kid done’ still exercises a significant, if waning appeal for the otherwise non-religious in 21st Century England. The opportunity to combine a naming ceremony, the designation of ‘god parents’ as trustees of children’s welfare and to have a big party continues to be attractive to the English mind. Indeed in some places, like my own inner-city Manchester, a baptism or ‘christening’ represents a kind of surrogate wedding for those who might otherwise not have the inclination or tradition of marrying. I have heard of baptism parties turning up at churches in limos with all the ceremony of wedding couples. And this is comprehensible. A ‘Hello’ style wedding may be out of the reach of many, but a big baptism party, in which several kids from the same family are ‘done’, can be saved for. Families scattered by circumstance and distance can be gathered. And if this event can be offered ‘privately’ – i.e. as just for the baptism party rather than as part of a larger church service – all well and good. Diocesan guidelines suggest that a baptism should take place as part of the main Sunday worship; families (and indeed congregations) often prefer that it is not. In a consumerist, ‘bespoke’ society where the individual is highly prized, parents often prefer a ‘special’ service for little Johnny or Joanna. And where is God here? If, for the baptism party, God is present – and in my experience she typically is – she is understood in individualised terms, through the prism of blessing & protection. God is invoked to protect the child.
As the quote from St Gregory indicates, the church has a rather different narrative. Community and family are prioritised over the individual. The language is that of ‘x being added to our number.’ The language of the Church of England baptism service – currently under review – has elements of terror about it. For example, those who have sentimentalized ideas about baptisms are unlikely to be comforted by lines like, ‘We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death’. For at the heart of the baptism service is the notion that we are taking part in something reality-changing; that rather than being the kind of service that warrants cooing and applause from the grandparents as little Joanna cries, in baptism we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection.
I do not write this to debate the ins and outs of Infant vs Believer’s Baptism. However, one is a fool if one ignores the social and, therefore, political, implications of what baptism represents in particular contexts. As evidenced by late and post-Roman Europe, in a patriarchal/feudal based setting, the baptism of the Head of the Household/King/Lord could be enough to trigger mass baptisms/conversions. Indeed the presence of this practice in Acts suggests it was, in some emerging Christian communities, non-controversial. Equally the remark of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 – ‘What is to prevent me from being baptised?’ – is striking. Eunuchs, though not uncommon in the ancient world, were liminal creatures; there was a profound sense in which the eunuch’s question goes beyond a simple request from an individual to be baptised, but hooks into debates about whom might participate fully in the life, death & resurrection of Christ. Eunuchs – as people of the edge and margins and also as gender outlaws – present striking challenges to those who police the borders of faith in the present age. Being one of ‘us’, in Christian terms, is not to be reduced to ethnic, gendered or even sexual terms. Grace goes ahead of our human instincts to police the boundaries of holiness.
At one level, Luke tells the story of one man – Jesus – being baptized by another – John – in the Jordan for the forgiveness of sins. At another theologically potent level, it is the story of the one who rises up out of the waters to be anointed by the Spirit in the form of a dove and hears God’s proclamation of Jesus as Son of God. Intriguingly both dimensions are deeply subversive and politically challenging.
Consider the first sense. John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins bears a family resemblance to Christian baptism, but clearly that is not what it is. It forms part of a tradition of wider Jewish purification practices. And yet John has extraordinary authority not derived from the powers of his day. John – like Jesus – speaks with an authority and power that is, in traditional political terms, illegitimate. It has not been derived from Temple or Palace or the City. It is a voice in the wilderness. He offers ethical oracles to tax collectors and soldiers, both examples of groups typically seen as complicit with the status quo and established regime. Here is one to whom the crowd’s go searching for life and yet he is not beholden to established power. He draws the hungry to the wilderness, among them Jesus. This baptism offered on the margins, in fierce landscapes, without comfort or safety.
Consider also the more theologically cranked reading of these events. If we dare apply John’s words about ‘the one more powerful than I is coming’ to Jesus and feed that into Luke’s talk of the heavens opening, of a dove descending and the voice of God conferring ‘Sonhood’ on Jesus we have a serious theological brew. However we read the ‘Sonhood’ of Jesus it seems evident to me that we are dealing, again, with the liminal. One does not need to get over-excited about theologically charged notions like the two natures of Christ, in order to appreciate this: the concatenation of images and notions (fire, heaven, dove, voice of God) indicate language straining to deal with who this person (now) is. Whether in baptism or as a consequence of baptism, Jesus is not to be viewed as mere man. Or if he is ordinary – a peasant, an ex-refugee and so on – he is also utterly Other. The implications of this are shattering. The anointing of God’s Beloved does not happen in temples or palaces or the public square of the city, but in the wilderness among the poor or the despised. Grace is not regulated by power, but descends as it will.
If memory serves the Greek word for dove is peristera. It amused me as a student to discover that the word can also be translated as ‘pigeon’. In my own context, pigeons are seen as vermin, as ‘rats with wings’. Clearly the Greek notion of pigeon is somewhat different to urban Manchester’s. Yet, there is something rather potent and actually appropriate about the notion of God descending upon his ‘son’ in the form of a pigeon; that the one destined to be rejected by the powers and the people, would be anointed by God in the form of a despised creature. In the very least, as a visual image, the notion of God coming as a rat-with-wings helps us understand the liminal, outrageous nature of Christ.
Here in Manchester, as elsewhere, we continue to baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And so many who choose to bring their mewling babes and fractious toddlers are not among the respectable, the wise or (in a middle-class, self-righteous way) good. And still they come and waters are blessed. And just as grace raced ahead of both John and Jesus, so it makes a space for those who cannot articulate why baptism matters; the grace of God in the waters of baptism continues to break up cosy, respectable notions of belonging, identity and authority.