Another Lent has come and gone. This last week we made the journey with the faithful–and with many more still feeble in faith–to the tomb where we discovered that it is still empty! Thanks be to God for that. And now priests, pastors, and parishioners around the world are preparing for baptisms this Sunday. But why is baptism the next (theo)logical movement in the Church’s calendar year?
Historically, Lent has been set aside as a time of preparation for the catechumenate–the people who are coming to faith for the first time, or those who are returning to their First Love after a season, however long, of wilderness wandering. Lent, you see, is a death before a resurrection, a time of releasing the weights and sins that so easily entangle us so that we can run with perseverance. We know that once we make the journey to the tomb-that-we-hope-is-still-empty, we’ll have plenty of work to do.
The Church, therefore, has taught that after the period of Lenten training, one is properly prepared to enter the waters of baptism. But what is baptism? What is going on in baptism?
To begin, we remember that baptism requires water. If we open the first page of the Bible, before we read the creation story we find the Spirit hovering over the primordial waters. This detail is not throwaway. Water is an essential part of the Christian story:
- YHWH sends The Deluge in Noah’s time. Water cleans out and water creates new possibilities.
- Baby Moses floating the Nile in a basket. The future rescuer is rescued from the treacherous waters.
- Crossing the Red Sea. Israel is saved and separated from her oppressors through water.
- Water from the Rock in the wilderness. Even the arid wilderness, we’re told, gushes for YHWH.
- Crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Obstinance is washed away before land is possessed.
- Naaman the Leper dips seven times. God heals this scoundrel ruler of a foreign army through a washing.
- Jesus walks on water. Jesus turns water into wine.
- Jesus says, “Peace be still.” A storm ceases.
- Jesus says to the woman at the well, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
- Jesus says that from believer’s bellies will flow “rivers of living water”, and by this he meant the Spirit.
- Revelation 22 imagines the “River of Life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” The tree of life stands on both sides of the river, bearing twelve crops of fruit (to feed the Twelve Tribes!), “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
On and on it goes–water, water, more holy water.
Jesus himself insisted on being baptized, getting in on the work his Father was doing in the deep end of the pool. Through water Jesus is anointed with the Spirit and declared a son. His ministry is inaugurated and power released as he comes up from the depths.
John the Baptizer himself, a man known for doing his best work down in the Jordan River, said: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
The Greek verb bapto means “to dip” or “to dye”. In baptism we are “dipped” into newness, the old sin-story being washed away, carried downstream by the currents of the Spirit. We begin to see our baptism as a divine coloration, a “dye-ing”, our lives increasingly tinted by shades of Christ’s love, holiness, and glory.
What is especially important about the Christian rite of baptism is The Story going on within and beyond the story that we see playing out in the water in front of us—the reality that this person splashing around in water is being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, right here, right now. In baptism, we believe we are watching the simultaneous decimation and reconstruction of a life by the Spirit who is called Holy. Baptism is a drowning and a rescue all at the same time. Baptism is the release from slavery into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Marilynne Robinson, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, has provided us one of the most sanctified accounts of water. In a vivid scene, she writes:
“The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.”
Every morning I try to get up early to have a shower before my three kids stir. It is one of the few quiet moments of my day and it has become a time of holy reflection for me, my daily “mini-baptism” where I think to myself, “What if it’s true? What if water was made for blessing?”
We come up out of the baptismal waters and someone hands us a towel. We quickly dry off and celebrate this momentous occasion with family and friends. But the truth is we never really dry off. The Spirit within us guarantees a life drenched in the grace of God. Baptized Christians walk around dripping wet.