Reflecting on the baptismal liturgy

This past Sunday, May 9, we  celebrated baptisms at saint benedict’s table.  What follows is a reflection written for those exploring baptism, unpacking some of the key pieces of the liturgy.  Because everyone present at a baptism is invited to renew their own baptismal covenant, this is actually a reflection which should have some relevance to all of us.

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thought it made sense to offer a bit of a reflection for all of you, regarding the upcoming baptism and renewal of baptismal vows.  What I’m offering here is a quick tour through three of the sections of the liturgy, hopefully providing something of an interpretive lens through which to understand the material, as well as a foundation for your own continuing reflections.

This time around, our liturgy will involve the baptism both of an infant and of an adult, as well as the reaffirmation by three different individuals of their previous baptisms.  We don’t in this tradition ever “re-baptize,” as that would represent a negating of a baptism that, in a different context, had its own integrity.  But to reaffirm is in itself a significant act; it is a laying hold of that previous baptism afresh.

The basic force of the liturgy is the same, whether for infant, adult, or in reaffirmation.  In the case of the infant, the promises and commitments are made by parents and godparents (called “sponsors” in the text), and in time this little baby will need to make her own decisions about how she is going to live into this act.  But you know, parents are always shaping and forming and making decisions on behalf of our children; why would their spiritual life and identity be any different?  We just have to trust that we are doing the best we can with the decisions we make… and then the long process of letting go into that trust begins!

Following the sermon, we will all make our way to the font at the back of the church.

1.  Presentation and Examination of the Candidates

These questions come to us from our forebears in the ancient church, and involve very powerful language.  There is first of all a three-fold renunciation of all that corrupts and compromises us; that which leads us to be anything less than the humans we were meant to be – created in God’s image, and declared as valued and of dignity and worth.

Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

Answer I renounce them.

This is followed by a three-fold affirmation of all that fills us, feeds us, and gives us light and life.

Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour?

Answer I do.

Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?

Answer I do.

Question Do you promise to obey him as your Lord?

Answer I do.

And then the whole gathered community is asked to make an important pledge.  I don’t see this as being in any way a token act, as this whole action of baptism and renewal assumes the presence of a community of fellow-travelers.  It would be good to have significant friends and supporters there with us on that day.

Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?

People We will.


2. The Baptismal Covenant

The next piece I want to offer some brief reflections on is the “covenant” or Apostles’ Creed.  An earlier form of this creed dates to the 4th century, and in this form it has been used at baptisms for close to 1500 years.  This is a very basic statement of the outline of Christian belief; it doesn’t try to say everything, but rather that which the ancient church understood to be basic and foundational.  Everyone present will recite this with the candidates.

Celebrant Do you believe in God the Father?

I believe in God,
The Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

Celebrant Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

I believe in Jesus Christ,
his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again
to judge the living and the dead.

So, here is an interesting note.  Along with Jesus, the other two historical figures who are named are Mary and Pilate.  Framed against the material from section #1, you can see Mary as the person who turned in radical affirmation toward life, while Pilate chose a path marked more by death.  He quite literally chooses the death of Jesus, but at another and almost deeper level, he and his regime deal in death all the time.

Celebrant Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

I believe in God the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Just a couple of quick notes:  the term ‘catholic’ denotes ‘universal,’ and is a declaration of the wholeness of the Body of Christ, in spite of how fragmented its institutional face has become.  The closing lines having to do with “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” are not narrowly about Jesus’ resurrection, but rather about the hope of a life that transcends our current experience of life and death… and one that understands the body to be not an empty or debased shell, but rather a part of the whole of who we are.  To talk about “the resurrection of the body” is to say that somehow what happened to Jesus is also in the fullness of time the promise for us.

3.  The Baptismal Covenant articulated

This section picks right up where the creed leaves off, and in a sense seeks to put the “wheels” on that statement.  What does it look like to be a person who can proclaim the creed?  It looks like this:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

I will, with God’s help.

That first question comes from the Book of Acts, when it describes the life of the early church as follows:  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)  That would mean teaching and learning, community life, communion, and prayer.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

I will, with God’s help.

I love the way this second question is phrased – “whenever you fall into sin” – not “if” but “whenever.”  It is realistic, in other words.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

I will, with God’s help.

There is a tradition that St Francis once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary.”  That is the force of including the word “example” in this question.  Live it, in other words.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?

I will, with God’s help.

This question challenges us to “live it” beyond our normal comfort zone.  “Who is my neighbour?” the lawyer asked, and Jesus told him the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will, with God’s help.

Finally, this question draws the boundaries wider, calling us to care for the neighbour we’ll probably never even meet.  It asks us to attend to things as mundane as fair trade coffee and as pressing as mobilizing around disaster relief in Haiti or maybe housing issues in core area Winnipeg.  Who is my neighbour, indeed?

It is all pretty demanding stuff, really.  Thankfully, the framing is always really “by grace.”  We can’t kid ourselves into thinking either that we can pull this off in a seamless way, or that since we will always fall short we might as well give up.  It is the commitment to the long-haul of doing the best we can under the liberating demands of the gospel that really fuels this sacrament of baptism.

Jamie Howison


2 Responses to Reflecting on the baptismal liturgy

  1. colleen says:

    Just got back from Cursillo and wondering what I should be meditating and I open your web site for the first time and here it is! Thank you for this walk through of my baptism.

  2. byron says:

    I will make it a date to read this again that evening and I will add that it is still very powerful to me today…
    Jamie, I posted my music website at facebook…please drop in as it actually contains some music now.

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