To Hold Death’s Hand: Baptismal Identity, Dying and Rising

Growing up in the Evangelical Free Church I was taught that baptism was something Christians did in order to publicly profess their faith. For evangelicals, the Christian life begins as a spiritual reality, usually marked by praying a prayer in which the sinner gives their life to Jesus either by “accepting Jesus into their heart” or “accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.” Baptism either completes this process necessarily or is expected to follow at a later date – once the believer is ready to make a public commitment. Baptism is always done publicly, sometimes in a river or a lake, but usually in a large baptismal pool in the church sanctuary. A private service of baptism would be unthinkable as it is incongruent with the idea of public testimony. Indeed, those baptized in non-liturgical communities are often asked to speak personally about their conversion and commitment. These testimonies tell the personal stories of conversion, freedom, new priorities, new life. Due to its public nature, Baptism performs an identification of the individual with Christ over and against other claims on the person, and identity as one of the faithful.

In liturgical churches, baptism is also connected to public identity and belonging. The priest marks the baptized on the forehead with oil proclaiming “you are sealed as Christ’s own forever.” The celebrant and people in the Episcopal rite proclaim “We receive you into the household of God…” at the end of the baptismal rite, and in some churches the priest will carry a newly baptized infant around the nave (worship space) for all to greet. For liturgical churches baptism is also about identity; however the sense of identity is not as individualistic, but rather more about incorporation into the body of Christ.

Yet there is a deeper undercurrent in Baptismal rites pointing to the idea that this is more than simply a mark of personal identity or the rite of initiation into a specific spiritual home. The blessing of the water in the Episcopal rite connects the baptismal font to the long history of god’s people by recalling the flood, crossing the Jordan, and the baptism of Jesus himself. The stories of the flood and the exodus are stories in which the water is lethal. The baptismal font, therefore, is not merely a bath, where we are washed clean of baptism-deathsin, but a moment of potential drowning. In non-denominational and Baptist churches they have retained the physical action of immersion into a pool of water – usually done by leaning backwards, held by and assisted by the pastor – in a way that physically makes the individual vulnerable and mimics the action of dying in a way that sprinkling does not. The return of full immersion practices in some liturgical churches should be noted here. Those who advocate for it speak of the symbolic power of a quantity of water that is enough to drown in. (The picture above is from an Episcopal Church.)

Likewise, the cross, a symbol of death, is the sign made by the priest with the oil on the forehead in liturgical settings. The Episcopal baptismal rite includes the phrase “all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ…” This connection to the cross is expressed in the notion of being washed in the blood of Christ among evangelicals. A washing is not a typical washing where blood is involved. The Roman Catholic rite speaks of baptism as being “buried with Christ.” Presbyterian ministers proclaim, “Hear the good news! In baptism you were buried with Christ. In baptism also, you were raised to new life in him.”

So we must conclude that baptism is not simply about identity or membership; it is a symbolic death as well as a resurrection. This should not be surprising as all Christian denominations speak of conversion in terms of death/new life. One cannot be “born again” without having died in some way. Evangelicals often speak of conversion as breaking the bonds of death, and of the pre-Christian life as one in which one is “dead in trespasses and sin.” In all cases, the new life only comes by way of death.

But let us pause to really consider this: the new life follows death. This new life engenders a new identity, because one has moved through death and into the community of the living who are no longer bound by death. Because death cannot bind us, we freely move through death. It is this fact that allows us to proclaim with St. Paul as he echoes Hosea: “Oh death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?”

Death, therefore, is not something to be pushed aside; rather, it is necessary to the Christian life. A Christian is one who has died in the waters of Baptism and has been raised to new life Christ. The story can’t be told without death or the profound meaning of Baptism will be lost.

In the next part we will explore what it means to be the “living dead.”

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