The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Homily for Holy Baptism
A big welcome to the Sutherland and Lord family and all those here with them. Duncan, Lisa and their two daughters Peyton and Fallon will be baptized today. It isn’t often we get to baptize all together people old enough to make their own affirmations of faith. The girls will be answering my questions alongside their parents, and they’ve chosen godparents, too, who are here with us today.
It’s also not often we get to baptize an entire household! How exciting this is; it feels almost Biblical. In the Scriptures, which tell of the earliest years of the church, very frequently the apostles would baptize not just an individual but his (or her) entire household. It’s as if we’re entering something very ancient today.
And we are. We’re entering something very ancient whenever we do this service, but the more so today because this will be even closer to what those first baptisms were like almost 2000 years ago. We didn’t baptize infants and young children until the 5th century. Until then, candidates had to say these vows themselves. If you couldn’t, you couldn’t be baptized. Some Christian traditions still require people to be old enough to say their baptismal vows themselves.
Infants were eventually baptized (with godparents as proxies) for a lot of good reasons, but if you were a Christian in the first five hundred years of the church, you would not have done it that way. And you would have had a lot of preparation to get to this point. Instruction for baptism in the early church lasted as long as three years, rarely less than one. During that time, you would come to church every Sunday, where you would be allowed to sit through first part of the service, what we call the Liturgy of the Word. After the sermon you would be escorted out for your lessons, and that would be your Sunday. Many would not have witnessed the Eucharist until the day they were baptized.
Baptismal fonts were a lot different back when it was just adults. They were typically pools, in the ground, or sometimes like tubs, that the candidate would be immersed in. Many of them were housed in separate buildings outside the main church, called baptisteries. Florence has a famous one, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, St. John. My family and I just last summer saw a beautifully preserved 5th century baptistery in Ravenna.
When you finally reached the day of your baptism–or night, since most baptisms back then took place on the night before Easter–you would be separated from the main congregation and taken to the baptistery outside the church. There you might be covered in oil, like an athlete about to contend for a prize (or an athlete victorious after battle); remember the apostle Paul uses this imagery in our Scriptures: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” he tells his friend Timothy in one of our New Testament letters, reflecting on his life of service. You most likely would also have received a costly white robe, symbol of the purity of new birth.
Then the service of baptism began. At the Arian Baptistery my family visited in Ravenna, which was about the size of our chancel up here, those about to be baptized began by standing outside and saying those portions of the service that we still say today, called the three renunciations:
“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” asks the priest, to which the candidates reply “we renounce them.”
“Do you renounce all the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
“Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”
There’s a reason those three questions sound ancient: they are. The Church of England a few years ago gave priests the option of changing this part of the service. They’re now allowed to take out the word “Satan” if they feel that might deter new members from joining. But this strange terminology makes you stop and think. Who (or what) is Satan? Why might evil need to be expressed in such a way? What drives us to the Church, seeking new life? Importantly, this language links us to a past that is part of who we are.
After the renunciations outside the baptistery, you would then enter for the next three questions, called the affirmations. And these baptisteries were–still are–magnificent. To enter one after all that preparation and anticipation must have been glorious. Glittering mosaics, bright frescoes of John, Jesus, all the events of their lives, their own baptisms, the Holy Spirit high above, a hovering white dove, maybe God the Father’s hand in glittering gold tile dipping in at the way top, from up in the heavens. In the middle of it all, a large marble pool filled with clear, cool water. And a priest, maybe a bishop, waiting to baptize you.
The Apostles’ Creed, which we’ll say all together in a moment, grew out of these earliest baptisms. The candidate would enter the pool on one side, and the priest would ask three fundamental questions between dunkings: Do you believe in God the Father?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” We’re about to hear all this, more or less like it was then.
Finally, leaving the water, the candidate enters into the main church to be greeted enthusiastically by the congregation. We have a vestige of that in our joint prayer following every baptism, the one we say altogether: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” And then came the first time the newly baptized exchanged the peace. In fact, the ritual of exchanging peace with one another may have originated with the baptismal services, and this moment, when the people greet those who’ve just been baptized.
What we do here, every time we baptize a new person into the faith, is a continuation of those practices that began long ago and will continue far into the future. And yet every baptism is unique. With each person, the heavens open, and a voice from above declares “This is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Just as it spoke to our Lord Jesus Christ so long ago.
There’s an old tradition that when Jesus was baptized, time stood still. Even the waters of the Jordan stopped in place while creation sang with joy. Every baptism is special in God’s eyes–yours, mine, and that of these four new members whom we now welcome into the faith. Let us now move to the back of the church and to the font for the Holy Baptism.