January 8, 2012/Baptism of the Lord
The baby was first. The little one, no more than six months old, was undressed completely and his little lips chattered in the quiet chill of the chapel where we stood. At the center of our circle was a font with a large silver basin filled with water. The priest with the salt and pepper beard and glasses, the sleeves of his black robes pushed up past his forearms, cradled the baby in his arms and began praying. I could not understand the language but the ancient meaning of the words was clear. It was invocation, supplication and recitation. He lifted the baby up, and with firm, steady hands that never lost their grip on the child, even when wet, he swooshed the baby through the water, three times. With every glide through the font, the priest called on each name of the trinity. The baby was too startled to react, sputtering for breath between dunks. With the final splash, the baby began to cry.
Anointed with oil and dressed in new clothes to reflect his newly baptized self, the baby was finally given back to his mother for comfort. Now it was the toddler’s turn. She had been watching the baby’s baptism intently, and I could see the relief in her deep brown eyes that it was happening to her little brother instead of her. Then they began to undress her, and the relief changed from fear to fury. The ritual was performed once more, even more impressive this time because of the priest’s ability to hold onto a squirming, screaming toddler.
When she was dressed and calmed, the family passed around trays of rich sweets, living up to the Arabic rule of hospitality.
This was January 1993 and I was in Syria as part of a travel/study tour of the Near East with a group from my seminary and the larger Richmond community. Our trip started in Amman, Jordan, moved to Syria, and from there we would journey to Egypt and then Israel.
But this was Syria. We were traveling around the countryside, as well as staying in larger cities like Damascus. Our Syrian tour guide was an efficient and somewhat nervous man, and on this particular day we had stopped at a Syrian Orthodox church. Earlier in the day we’d had the opportunity to meet the Patriarch of Antioch – the equivalent in the Syrian Orthodox church of the Pope in Roman Catholicism.
When we reached the church and realized that something beyond the ordinary was happening, our guide checked with the family and they eagerly invited us to share in this profound moment in their lives and the lives of their children.
This was an extraordinary moment to witness. Although I had seen other baptisms in my home church, and would go on in my ordained life to baptize many babies, toddlers and older believers, I had never seen a baptism like this. It was especially poignant for me, because I knew that it was similar to the way my nephew Benjamin was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church – a baptism I had not gotten to experience.
At the time I thought it strange that the family would have a private baptism service. It ran counter to what we profess in the protestant church, that baptisms are to be done as part of a full worship service. In our expression of the faith, there is no such animal as a private baptism. We are baptized into a larger community of believers. And as the congregational vows we make at any baptism state, we promise as a community to help with the nurture and support of the newly baptized, whether that be a child or an adult.
I think now that perhaps this was a quieter affair because it was being done in a predominantly Muslim country, but whatever the reason I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to experience this particular moment in the lives of these children. I never learned their names, and they are both grown now. Maybe they are preparing to have their own children baptized as well.
It seems especially fitting to think of this quiet, very personal baptism in light of Mark’s gospel. Jesus is baptized surrounded by people. But unlike the other gospel accounts, in Mark’s telling God’s affirmation of Jesus is meant for his ears only. No one else witnesses the descent of the dove or the voice that tears open the heavens. In the Greek the word that is used for tear is schizo. The only other time Mark uses this term is at the tearing apart of the curtain of the temple at Jesus’ crucifixion. It seems to me that in both of these moments the boundaries between heaven and earth, between God and humans are ripped apart and away.
As I’ve preached before immediacy is critical in Mark’s gospel. There is no time to waste. Mark establishes Jesus’ identity from the opening verses. And in his baptism Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, the promised Messiah is confirmed by God.
“You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
No, the people around Jesus weren’t privy to this information, but Mark’s readers were and are.
Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is confirmed in his baptism. Doesn’t this mean that ours is as well? When I watched those little ones being baptized in Syria so many years ago, I was watching an act of claiming, of identifying. This goes beyond them being claimed by the church or a family celebration of an important ritual in their lives. They were claimed by God. Part of why we endorse the baptism of infants in our denomination is because we believe that God’s grace claims our lives whether we are aware of it or not. God claims us, not the other way around. To be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is to given a new identity. And whether we receive a new outfit on our baptisms or not when we are baptized we are figuratively dressed in new clothes. Our baptism seals our identity as children of God.
One of my favorite series of movies is the Toy Story saga. I especially love the last movie, Toy Story 3. The child, Andy, who loved his toys, is now grown up Andy, on his way to college. Most of the toys think that they were given away to a daycare center on purpose, but Woody the Cowboy reminds them that they belong to Andy and that he still loves them. He does this by showing them the bottom of his foot. That is where Andy wrote his name, identifying Woody as his beloved toy. They each bear that mark. They are identified as Andy’s own.
Baptism marks us. It may not be a mark that we can see, God’s name written on the bottom of our foot, but it as a mark just the same. Baptism marks us with grace. Baptism marks us with love. Baptism seals our identity as the children of God. As we observe the baptism of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, let us also remember and renew the vows made at our own baptisms. Let us remember that we are claimed, that we are loved, that we are dressed in new clothes, and like Jesus we are sent out into a broken world. Let us give thanks that like Jesus we are baptized. Alleluia! Amen.