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Taking the Plunge
BAPTISM and PARENTING
By Anne E. Kitch
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 Anne E. Kitch
All rights reserved.
When my second daughter, Lucy, was baptized, we had been in our new parish for about six months. I remember the flurry of activity surrounding the event: preparing for the arrival of family and godparents from out of town, coordinating meals and celebrations, and, once again, finding something festive to wear that fit my postpartum body. I was back to work in the parish after maternity leave, but my choice was to be in the pew as mother rather than at the font as priest that day. Even so, my clergy eye checked the readiness of the church.
The pews at the front of the church had been roped off for the candidates and their families. Our daughter would share her baptismal day with another daughter of the parish. As we took our place in the front row, a few of the regulars were displaced from their usual pews, a shuffle that always happens on baptismal days. The font was ready. The cover of the font, with its Holy Spirit dove counterweight, had been lifted to reveal the large stone basin with water in the bottom. More water was at hand in a large silver pitcher ready to be poured into the font in an abundant stream that would be visible to the congregation. A shell with the oil of chrism, blessed by the bishop the previous holy week, stood ready along with two new baptismal candles. There were also two small wrapped packages that I knew had been prepared by the first-grade Sunday school class. A student from that class would present one of the gifts to us—a Bible-story book about the baptism of Jesus by John.
The acolytes, choir, and clergy lined up at the back of the church, and as the music for the opening hymn began, so did the procession. My daughter rested contentedly in my lap. I had nursed her, changed her diaper, and dressed her in the same baptismal gown that her sister had worn—the one that had now clothed four generations of new Christians in my family. I hoped she would remain content, at least until the baptismal moment itself. There were the opening prayers, the lessons, and the sermon to get through before the actual baptism. It's always a risky thing to place too much hope in an infant's contentment. As the procession passed our pew, she began to squirm, and I tried to settle her again. The squirming increased, and I began to wonder if the choir members would notice my struggle. What would they think of their new priest, who couldn't keep her child calm during a service? What if my daughter began to scream and I had to get up and leave the pew before the baptism?
I don't remember what the scripture readings were that day, but I do remember that the sermon had something to do with baptism. Miraculously, my daughter never did break into full cry, and suddenly the moment had arrived. "The candidates for holy baptism will now be presented," said the celebrant. And there we were—me and my husband and the three godparents—standing up and saying, "I present Lucy Grace to receive the sacrament of baptism."
Parents and godparents, the sponsors, often stumble over this line: "I present Calvin to receive the sacrament of baptism." When I prepare people for a baptism, I always have them rehearse it out loud. Speaking this line during the baptismal liturgy can be more difficult than people think. Often this is because the parents and godparents aren't used to speaking up in church. Often it's because the moment to speak seems to come upon them suddenly and they're caught unawares even though they rehearsed the day before. But I think there is another reason people tend to trip over this line or mumble it: they're hesitant about the power of the words they are about to invoke. Presenting a child to a church community and to God is no small thing.
What exactly does it mean to present someone for baptism? What does it mean to say those words in church, in the midst of the gathered community, and before God? In everyday terms, to present means to bring into the presence of someone or to introduce. It also means to make a gift to someone, to give. When you present your child for baptism, you are doing all of these things. First, you're introducing your child to the people assembled, some of whom you know very well, some of whom you've never seen before, and some of whom you may never see again. Nevertheless, you are introducing your child to them, the gathered community, the Church, saying, in effect, "Church, here is our beloved daughter. Daughter, here is the Church."
Parents often think that baptism also introduces their child to God, or God to their child, but that's not the case. God already knows and loves your child, and your child already knows and loves God. You see, the two of them have been acquainted before this baptismal moment in church. "You knit me together in my mother's womb," the psalmist prays to God (Psalm 139:12, BCP). "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you," God tells the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5). It's an awesome thing to think about—God knowing us, loving us, calling us even before we're born into this world. But there you have it. Not only did God know and love your child before he or she was born, but God knew and loved you the same way.
That leads us to the second thing you're doing when you present your child for baptism: you're opening yourself to a spiritual encounter. Whether you've thought about it or not, choosing to have your child baptized means choosing to deepen your relationship with God. When you present your child, you also place yourself before God and the gathered community of believers. Baptism isn't simply about wanting something good for your child; it's also about wanting something good for yourself. Whether you've been part of a faith community continuously, are returning to a community you've known, or are just now entering a community with your child, when you present your child for baptism, you acknowledge in some way that God has more in store for your life as well. The Holy Spirit isn't done with your faith life.
Finally, in presenting your child, you're also choosing, in a sense, to give your child away. You're making a gift of your child to the Church. People probably don't decide to have their children baptized because they want to give them away, but that's what happens in baptism. Essentially you're saying to the gathered community, "I make a gift of this child to you." From now on there will be a connection between your child and this particular church community. That connection may be strengthened by participation in the community: worship, Sunday school, youth group. Yet even if the connection is ignored and the relationship with the community neglected, the connection is never completely severed. Adults who rarely attended church or Sunday school as children nevertheless often have a strong sense of belonging to the church in which they were baptized. In presenting your child to the Church, in making a gift of your child, you're honoring the source of all life: God. You're making a public statement that you know, at some level, that all things come from God, including your child. You're sharing the gift God has given you with the community of believers.
So why are you giving your child to the Church? Your gift is, in a way, an exchange. You give your child in order to receive the sacrament of baptism. You want something for your child. To receive is to gain possession of something, but closed hands and hearts cannot receive. We have to be open and allow the new thing to come into our lives. To receive can also mean to act as a container. So this child you present is about to become a container for something wonderful. It's not as if your child is an empty vessel that you or the church or God is about to fill. Because of that conversation in the womb, not one of us starts life as a blank slate. But as children are baptized, they receive and are filled with living water that will nourish them for the rest of their lives. Their tiny bodies are about to embrace a sacrament.
The Sacrament of Baptism
"Sacrament" is one of those big churchy words. The catechism in The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as the "outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace" (BCP 857). Sometime in my childhood I learned that definition by heart as a Sunday school exercise. But the phrase has resonated within me for more than thirty years and has become deeply embedded in my understanding of holiness. The sacraments stand in the area between the everyday and the divine, with one foot in each. When we talk about the sacrament of Eucharist, one of the two primary sacraments in the Anglican tradition, the bread and wine—everyday, outward, visible signs—contain, through God's action, the real presence of Christ, the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine become holy food, and we treat them with great reverence.
In baptism, the other primary sacrament in the Anglican tradition, the outward and visible signs are the water and the oil. Again, through our prayers, these signs are imbued with the presence of the Holy Spirit, which enters those being baptized and changes their lives forever, whether they do anything about it or not. Anglicans believe that "the bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (BCP 298). Once you have been washed with the water of baptism, the Holy Spirit can't be washed out of you. You are marked. The celebrant even says at the conclusion of the rite, "You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever" (BCP 308).
At one level, of course, young children and infants have no way to say yes to this reception of the Spirit; they don't have the words for it yet. At the spiritual level, however, we believe that God and this child are already in dialogue. Thus, when a young child or infant is presented for baptism, the parents and godparents take it upon themselves to offer the child as a vessel for the Holy Spirit so the Spirit can be assimilated and welcomed with an open heart. They do this on behalf of the child, until the child can make that commitment independently.
In that one simple statement, "I present Owen to receive the Sacrament of Baptism," an entire conversation about who God is and how God acts has happened; a theological exchange has taken place. Having explored the significance of this presentation, you might think that's quite enough theology, thank you very much. But there's more to come. As in parenting, one thing leads to another. You've presented your child, but now you have some promises to make.
Getting Your Feet Wet
Things to Think About
What does it mean for you, personally, to present your child for baptism? What is your own baptismal story? Who presented you for baptism?
Why are you choosing baptism? What difference will it make for you? For your child?
Things to Try
Write the story of your own baptism or create a baptism book using photos, your baptismal certificate, and letters from godparents.
Begin a baptism scrapbook for your child.
Invite your child's godparents and other family members to write letters to your child on the day of the baptism (or letters remembering the baptism). Save these letters and read them to your child on baptism anniversaries.
I made several vows in regard to the way I would raise my children. I vowed I'd never serve them hot dogs, which certainly have little nutritional value and may not even really be food. I vowed I'd never buy them fast-food kids' meals that come with toys. I vowed I'd never let them watch any television shows apart from those on public broadcasting. If keeping these vows is a test of my parenting, then I've failed miserably. But when I think of the motivation behind those vows, I honestly have to say that my husband and I have done a fairly good job. In retrospect, it would have been better if I had vowed to feed my children nutritious food, to buy them thoughtful toys rather than gimmicks, and to expose them to wholesome children's programming on television. It's best to make vows about what you will do rather than what you won't do—like the vows we make on behalf of our children at baptism.
The first promises made in baptism are statements of "will do" rather than "will never do"—but they are a bit daunting. I truly think if parents and godparents really understood them, they'd never be able to stand up in church and make them. In fact, at baptism rehearsals, I always give the godparents a chance to back out. They never take me up on that offer. Somehow they already love their godchildren enough to promise them the moon, a promise that is just about as audacious as the baptismal promises they'll make. These promises that parents and godparents make on behalf of children can seem theologically complex and a bit overwhelming. But they're not meant to trip us up or create impossible burdens for us to carry.
In fact, Jesus promises that carrying his burden is light: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). Among other things, a yoke is a tool that helps you carry heavy objects. Have you ever seen a picture of someone with a wooden bar across his shoulders with a bucket attached to each side? That's one kind of yoke. If the yoke is made well, it fits you exactly and comfortably. It distributes the weight of heavy objects evenly, making them feel lighter and easier to carry. It's a matter of having the right tool. The right tool always makes the job easier. Taking on the baptismal promises is like putting on a yoke to help you with the task of parenting. The baptismal promises are meant to be helpful. They are guideposts for parents along the way.
Before our first child was born, my husband and I took parenting classes. During the first session, the teacher had us brainstorm a list of parenting goals. What did we want the outcome of our parenting to be? What attributes did we hope our child would exhibit as a result of our parenting? We'd never thought about it. The fact that we should have goals in mind and discuss them with one another was perhaps the most important thing we learned in that class. You mean there's an end result to this? It's more than working to have a good pregnancy with a healthy baby as the outcome? The list the class came up with was quite good. We hoped our children would be responsible, caring, and confident. We wanted them to grow up to be independent people, able to use their gifts and talents and act in loving ways toward themselves and others.
Baptism is about parenting within the context of a Christian life of faith. What makes this different from other parenting? Simply the fact that we want all those things on that list, and we want our child to live a life of faith as well—a life of faith within the Christian framework. What do we want for our children's faith life? The promises that come after the presentation are guidelines that help parents and godparents think about what they want as the end result of a baptized life. The parents and godparents are asked, "Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?" and "Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?" (BCP 302). The parents and godparents answer, "I will, with God's help." I think the most important part of that response is the second half: "with God's help." These are weighty promises, but we don't make them in isolation, nor are we on our own to fulfill them. So the pledge is made, but just what has been promised?
"Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?"
The word "responsible" comes from the same root word as "respond." It means to give an answer. You are to answer for this child. So part of what you're doing as the parent or godparent at baptism is answering for a child who is too young to answer alone and who can't yet agree to a life of faith. To be responsible also means to be trustworthy. The community is trusting that you will carry out this promise once you walk out the door of your parish church after the baptism. While the baptismal rite happens within the church, the baptismal life is lived mostly beyond the church doors. If your child is going to be brought up in the Christian faith and life, that faith and life need to be a part of everyday experience; thus, you need to be part of the community of believers. Yet attending church once a week won't give your child a faith life. Faith also needs to be lived out in the home. You child's faith formation depends, in large part, on your own example.
Excerpted from Taking the Plunge by Anne E. Kitch. Copyright © 2006 Anne E. Kitch. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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