In baptism, we go under the water, and in that action is recalled the Flood that washed the world clean of wicked men, and through which the ark bore Noah and his family into a new creation; Israel’s passage through the Red Sea, its deliverance from slavery into covenant with the Lord; its second passage through the Jordan into the land of promise; and the ritual purifications of the Law of Moses and for the initiation of Gentile proselytes into God’s covenant with Israel. All these actions lie behind the baptism of repentance administered by John in the river Jordan for the remission of sins, the sign of a radical new beginning for God’s own people, in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom, and for the one who baptizes in the Spirit. Jesus also receives baptism from John: a sign of his solidarity with sinners, a sign that he will take their place under the judgment of God, and for them be baptized into the baptism of his death, and arise to new life in the Spirit. For the voice that calls him Son, and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove, testify that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the one anointed with the Spirit for a baptism not just in water but also in the Spirit. In receiving this baptism of water and the Spirit, we are made his disciples and are initiated into the covenant of grace, with its privileges and obligations. The privileges given to us by incorporation into Christ and his Church are the remission of sin, the aid of the Spirit, and everlasting life – this is what the Prayer Book calls “re-generation”. The obligation is that of faith, whereby we receive the grace offered us in baptism, and are renewed inwardly by the Spirit.
This obligation is spelled out in the threefold promise of the baptismal covenant: to renounce the flesh, the world, and the devil – the words Scripture uses to name the powers opposed to God, and seeking to divide human beings from him – to believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith, as set forth in the Apostles’ Creed; and to keep God’s holy will and commandments. When baptized children have learned what those promises mean, which were made in their name by their sponsors, they will publicly confirm (ratify) those promises, and be confirmed (strengthened) by the laying on of hands with prayer for the sevenfold gift of the Spirit; after which they are admitted to Holy Communion, in the final step of their sacramental initiation into Christ and his Church.
The Prayer Book service of Baptism is composed of three elements. First, there is a ministry of the Word (prayer, scripture, and a short address, sadly omitted in the 1928 Prayer Book, and a prayer of thanksgiving), in which we acknowledge the need of all those born of regeneration and remission of sins, are assured of Christ’s will to receive children into his grace, and give thanks for our own calling to the knowledge of this grace, and faith in God.
Second, there is the making of the Covenant promises on behalf of the child, formally by the godparents (who symbolize the spiritual family of the church) and informally by the parents. In the 1928 Prayer Book this includes also promises of Christian nurture.
Third, there is the ministry of the Sacrament: a number of short prayers for the graces of baptism; a thanksgiving over water for the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death, with prayer to “sanctify this water to the mystical washing away of sin”; the action of baptism itself, and reception into the Church with consignation “in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil…”, words that have a special resonance on this first Sunday in Lent, when we commemorate Christ’s victory over the temptations that followed his own baptism. The service concludes with thanks for regeneration and prayer that “this child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning” – that is, by dying to sin and rising to righteousness, “so that finally, with the residue of thy holy Church, he may be an inheritor of they everlasting kingdom”. By the Spirit’s action in the sacrament, we die with Christ to sin, and we rise with Christ to a new life of righteousness; and what is there accomplished spiritually, must be lived out morally, in the daily death to sin and the daily rising to righteousness, until finally we die and rise again in our bodies also.
This essay by Fr. Dunbar was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on Feb. 26, 2023. Image: Wikiart.org, The Baptism of Christ by Giotti