To Hold Death’s Hand: Baptismal Identity, the Living Dead

At the funeral of one of my closest friends, the Presbyterian minister noted that his baptism was now complete in death. This reflects the already and not yet nature of the Christian life relative to the ideas we have been contemplating. Through baptism the Christian is already dead though not yet dead. So too the Christian is already alive in Christ by virtue of Baptism, yet struggles to fully realize the Christ-life while still living a physical life. My friend’s physical death completed the process signified in baptism. Conceiving of death in this manner, however, is not primarily about some measure of comfort that our loved ones are “in a better place,” but rather reflect a concept about continuity of spiritual life that starts in the physical world we know and continues after death.

road-to-emmaus-by-j-kirk-richards

The Road to Emmaus by J. Kirk Richards

The significance of this continuity is missed when it focuses solely on the afterlife, and such a focus rarely brings real comfort to the bereaved. The bereaved, suffering the loss of all that their loved one meant in their lives look for ways to share that sense of meaning and loss. That someone was an avid sportsman, accomplished in the arts or sciences, or progenitor of a large family are the surface facts. What lies underneath are the ways the person brought love, healing, inspiration or hope to others. For the baptized such deeper meanings find their true North in the ways that those valued gifts reflect the love of God, the healing of Jesus, inspiration of the Spirit and hope in things eternal. As the departed are remembered in the moments and days surrounding death, their lives as those remembered begin in earnest and in a more public way than before (unless they were a person of notoriety). Insofar as the life may be remembered as one that reflected the divine with us, which is to say “Emmanuel” another name for Jesus, the life may be judged to have been a Christian life in a broad sense. If we live our lives with this in mind, rather than in a quest to deny, delay and dismiss death, the idea that death completes baptism holds the power to transform our lives both as lived and remembered.

 

Keeping an eye to our own death and the memories that will be shared in our wake is similar but different from the concept of one’s “legacy” in “spiritual-but-not-religious” circles. For the Christian, one’s legacy is to be congruent with Christian story. Baptism, whether in a liturgical or evangelical setting, is an act in which where we have come from and where we are going is the story that we tell. In the Episcopal liturgy the legacy that we aspire to is summed up in this welcome and series of exhortations that follow the celebrant’s invitation to welcome the newly baptized: “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.” What Episcopalians proclaim with these words is that we are a people who are a family unbounded by human bloodlines. We are a people who are dead, who are alive, and who mediate the divine in our world. We live to glorify Christ, not to create a legacy glorifying ourselves or our family name.

Those in other denominations, including “non-denominational,” may also find these underlying themes. Looking at the idea of legacy through the lens of the “already dead” may also reveal how communities have drifted into heresy. A new life that springs out of death, that echoes the death of Christ, should not be frivolous or self-serving.  To die and rise in Christ through Baptism is to eschew the quest for mere survival, pleasure for its own sake, or even material “blessings.” If one is already dead, what value can material wealth really hold?

Living as one who is already dead has the power to move the Christian into a reality that is deeper than being a good person, giving to those less fortunate, or engaging in acts of charity. Rather, Christians, as members of the “living dead,” find their true being in a liminal reality where the divine enters into daily life. This liminal reality, signified and made present through Baptism, is a reality in which the Christian begins to participate in the reality of Christ incarnate, dead, and risen. It is, therefore, a reality in which the corporeal and the divine meet.

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