THE RISKS OF BAPTISM

Author: Fr. Michael Byron
January 13, 2019

In the ritual prayers for the baptism of children in the Catholic Church, one of the first questions that is asked of the parents is, “Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”  And their required response is, “We do.”

And here I am stealing the remarks of a married couple in our Pax Christi Community, who are parents of adult children, and who have noted that that is the most absurd answer that could ever be given.  New parents of babies clearly understand what they are getting into?  Really?  Of course they don’t.  They can’t.  I do not speak from personal experience here, but I’m certain that anyone who has ever parented a child knows the piercing truth of that sentiment.  What son or daughter has ever turned out to be just exactly what the parents were expecting and hoping for?  That’s just not the human condition.  To welcome a newborn child into the family and into the world is both a great joy and a great gamble.  We harbor enormous hopes for their futures, some of which will never be realized, despite our best efforts and most fervent prayers.  And who can say what raising them will demand?

One of my most favorite images for baptism occurred several years ago when I was presiding at the funeral of one of my uncles at his Catholic Church in Seattle.  There was a visitation before the Mass in the back of the church, and there was a very large baptismal pool that was about a foot deep and surrounded by a stone border that was about knee high.  Sometime during that visitation one of the guests, dressed in a suit and tie, backed into the font and fell into the water.  For a split second it was concerning, but after that, at least for me, it was funny.  And it made all the more so when, upon emerging from the pool, the man’s first words were, “Whoah!  That thing is dangerous!”

Truer Christian words could never have been spoken.  The danger of the Christian baptism comes in the recognition that we have no idea what we are saying “yes” to.  We do not, and cannot possibly, understand in the moment what baptism will require of us or of any child of God…

Other than this:  Baptism will require that we be faithful, and that we be accountable.  Faithful to our promises, and accountable to the community of Christians.  Baptism is not an empty ritual, nor is it magic, nor is it private.  Baptism is a public proclamation to hang on to faith in whatever life circumstance befalls us, to persevere in living into what the gospel demands—when it is easy, when it is difficult, and yes, when it is dangerous.  It all looks so simple and safe when the baby is presented at the font, and the promises seem so ordinary when parents and godparents say yes to their responsibilities, but this is a courageous commitment, sometimes a dangerous one.  

And it is a proclamation that we will do this for all the church and all the world to see.  It is an act of witness.  If we fail, it’s not just a matter between us and God.

Today on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord we hear these beautiful words of the heavenly voice addressed to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  And the same pledge from God belongs to all of us.  But before we become too self-satisfied with all that, perhaps we should recall what that designation required of Jesus, both in faithfulness and in accountability.  To be ID’d as “beloved of God” is not at all the same thing as to be given an easy life.  And certainly not some sort of privilege.  It is to be given a very specific responsibility.  

Because every child ever born, of whatever religion, nation, race, class, or way of life is “beloved of God.”  That is not something that distinguishes the baptized from all the others.

To be faithful…What that meant for Jesus was to identify himself with all of those poor, ignorant, arrogant, disdaining, petty, conniving, argumentative sinners whom he was sent from heaven to serve.  Not merely to teach them or to correct them or to judge them, but to stand in the world as one among them.  Jesus stood in line to be plunged into the Jordan River together with everybody else—he who was without need of forgiveness—because that’s what his Father asked.  Faithfulness meant an act of willing humiliation for him.  It means at least an attitude of willing humility for us, a life of solidarity with those who seem underserving of it.

And to be accountable…What that meant for Jesus was to reveal to all who would care to notice just what a truly holy life looks like—perseverance in trial, prayer in the midst of disappointment or confusion, public forgiveness when he was betrayed or denied or belittled or ignored, and a willing sign of charity for others to see, especially when that involved personal suffering—like the cross—because his disciples were watching and wondering and hoping.  He was accountable to them because of his baptism.  For us it means at least a resolve to make of our lives an example of what our professed beliefs call us to be, because the community is watching, wondering, and hoping.  This isn’t easy or romantic or superficial.  Baptism is hard, honorable, sometimes dangerous work.

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