Every now and then, I get a request to officiate a baptism in private.
“Just the family,” parents insist. “Maybe on a Sunday afternoon.”
I try to convince these good people that baptisms are church community happenings, conducted during a regular worship service. Baptism is an incorporation into the Christian community, I say. That’s especially important to remember for babies or toddlers, who are too small to make their own confessions of faith. The whole congregation promises to help them in their Christian journey.
Baptism is, indeed, an event of the church community. But this fall, as I baptized two boys in Mattapoisett Harbor, I realized baptism is more than that. It is a public event. Beyond an individual’s claiming of faith, beyond a soul-deep re-claiming of faith for those who witness a baptism -- for everyone in viewing range, baptism is a bold declaration of a living Christianity, and a startling invitation to those who have never claimed any faith at all.
Henry and Elliott’s baptisms this past September were my first ocean baptisms, but not my first immersion baptisms. I was raised and ordained in the Midwest, in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which practices “believer’s baptism” by full immersion. That is, when a child or adult prayerfully discerns acceptance of Jesus as savior, an ordained minister dunks them under the water. DOC churches are generally constructed with baptisteries, concrete pools about 4 feet deep, with steps descending, often behind the pulpit area.
Now I’m a New England Congregationalist, and very happily so. Instead of a concrete baptistery hidden behind the pulpit, the church where I serve has a baptismal font. It’s a tall, white, wooden column, topped with a beautifully carved lid of cherrywood. Most days, it’s tucked into a corner near the pulpit, but on baptism day, we bring it front-and-center. We remove the lid, revealing a metal pan, which we fill with water. During the service, the one to be baptized is brought forward, surrounded by deacons, parents, grandparents, and sponsors. I ask important questions of those adults and of the congregation. I dip my fingers into the water and make a wet sign of the cross on the smooth and perfect forehead. It’s a beautiful and poignant moment.
But, I must confess, I have missed talking to youngsters about baptism. I’ve missed the controlled chaos of immersion baptisms – towels, swimsuits under white robes, changing rooms, mentors to help children out of wet robes. I’ve missed children’s big-eyed astonishment as they take the first step down into the bath-warm water. They will actually be going totally under water – in church!
Another confession: Our ocean baptisms may have been my idea, although I didn’t think so when it all started. A couple years ago, I caught wind that Elliott’s parents were thinking of having him baptized outdoors. I excitedly made two mental leaps: First, this would be a full immersion baptism in Mattapoisett Harbor. Second, it would be on Homecoming Sunday, the only day besides the chilly Easter Sunrise service when we worship out of doors. Our Homecoming service is at Ned’s Point, near Ned’s Point Lighthouse. A few hundred yards away is a small beach. It would be perfect!
Alas, it was not to be. At least not then. As it turned out, Elliot’s parents hadn’t been thinking all that seriously about baptism at that time. Most likely, it was an offhand remark, made during a conversation about something else entirely. Disappointed, I tucked the idea away.
Fast forward to this past spring. Henry’s mother stopped in my office. A second grader having seen big brother and big sister baptized in the sanctuary, Henry had been asking a lot of questions. He felt he was ready. Mom and Dad felt he was ready. I remembered Elliott, now a third grader. Maybe now was the time for baptisms in the harbor! Discussions were had. Deacons gave quick, curious approval.
It was difficult to curb my enthusiasm at the prospect of ocean baptisms. Elliott and Henry were eager, too, as well as earnest. They knew it was something important, exciting, and different. Anticipation began rolling through the congregation. Some shared stories of their own immersion baptisms. But for most, the idea was pleasantly novel. They’d never seen an immersion baptism. A few people feared all that which might go dreadfully wrong. Had I ever done this before? This isn’t something we do in New England, some said. Don’t they only do that in the South? Certainly, nobody remembered one being done in our church before.
So much the better! Some of my attempts at a liturgical stretch have met with demure denials. For example, the idea of imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday was met with concerns that it would be perceived as “too Catholic.” That’s okay. When it comes to Godly things, we’re all students. As a transplant to my New England home, I’ve certainly learned that much of what I had considered “standard” is actually quite regional.
This was going to be a liturgical stretch, but a welcome one. We were all excited, even beyond the bounds of the congregation. Members began talking about our upcoming baptisms outside the church. They returned with stories of other congregations having baptized people in the ocean. This was all exciting stuff.
You should know that Ned’s Point is a local landmark. In three of the four seasons, on any given day, hundreds go there to watch boats sail the harbor, to fly kites, to practice yoga, or even to get married. I began to imagine the reaction of passersby who would witness these baptisms. What might they think, these good people who hang massive wreaths on front doors at Christmastime but never go to church? Would they be stunned? Offended? Might they realize that some people are still religious beyond being spiritual? That some people do still go to church? Believe in Jesus? Whatever their religious heritage, might they at the least be reminded of God?
Indeed, that overcast Sunday morning, Ned’s Point was active as usual. The beach had been the launching point for a few stand-up paddleboarders. There were the usual sea-gazers, walkers, and joggers. And we weren’t the only ones baptizing that day. A priest, a half-dozen well-dressed adults and a white-gowned infant were gathering by the lighthouse.
But we had our own business to tend to. Parents, sponsors, and many others from the congregation began collecting on the beach. Cooks who had arrived early to set up for the post-worship cookout set down their spoons. Praise band members set down their equipment. Everyone made their way to the beach, some climbing the surrounding rocks to get a better view.
We held a brief service on the shore so that all might hear Henry’s and Elliott’s confessions of faith, and so the congregation could make its promise of support and guidance. Then Henry and I waded into the water, he on his tippy toes. A final statement of belief and acceptance, a dip backward, a delighted gasp. A wader-clad deacon escorted Henry back to shore, and led Elliott out to me. Another acceptance of Jesus as savior, another dip backward, another startled gasp and giggle. And we were done.
I had expected a joyous, celebratory mood that reflected my own. And indeed, there were many smiles and a smattering of laughter. But there was earnestness as well. Long-married couples clung to each other. A few wiped tears from cheeks. They, too, understood something very important was going on, and that they, too, were declaring their Christianity to the whole community.
Standing on a beach under an overcast sky was as much a naked expression of faith as an ashy forehead smear on Ash Wednesday. And it moved them, and me, deeply.
We’ve had baptisms before those of Henry and Elliott, and we’ll have more in the future. I imagine most future baptisms will happen in our lovely sanctuary, proud parents holding their infant. And it will be truly and absolutely beautiful.
But for weeks after Homecoming, when people said “baptisms”, they included the definite article, “the baptisms.” As if Henry and Elliott rising dripping and startled from the harbor waters were the only baptisms the church had ever done.
Click here to read the Spotlight story and some tips on holding a successful, memorable, immersion baptism.
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