THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM BY JOHN WESTERHOFF
What is a Sacrament?
Baptism is a sacrament, not magic. The purpose of a sacrament is to make us aware of a truth that is not self-evident so that we might benefit from it. Sacraments are symbolic, ritual acts of revelation. Magical acts, on the other hand, are intended to acquire something we would not otherwise be able to possess. Magic, for example, would be an action performed to convince God to do something God would not do without our convincing.
Sacraments, importantly, make something that is already true and available, real for us so that we might fully benefit from it. For example, in terms of spiritual healing, in the sacrament of anointing we say, “I lay my hands upon you and anoint you with oil in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, beseeching him to uphold you and fill you with his grace, that you might know the healing power of his love.” Notice in this case that the healing power is already present and available. Our sacramental action is intended to make the person who is ill aware of its presence as well as open to and accepting of the healing God desires to offer. The person thereby benefits from its action in his or her life.
When an invisible reality is realized, made real, that is a sacrament. Or to put it another way, a sacrament is a point of connection between the invisible and the visible — an outward and visible material sign of an inward and invisible non-material reality.
Holy Baptism as a Sacrament
The truth that Holy Baptism reveals has to do with God — God’s love for us and our relationship with God. Baptism makes us aware that God loves each and every one of us with a love that is unmerited, unconditional, and never-ending. There is nothing we humans can do nor need to do to make that love available to ourselves or anyone else. Baptism is not necessary for a child to be the subject of God’s love. Baptism does not grant a child, or an adult for that matter, something they would not have been granted if they were not baptized. But it does make all of us aware of a love we might not otherwise be able to appreciate or benefit from. Therefore, while there is no need from God’s point of view for parents to have their children baptized, there is, from a human point of view, a very good reason.
Those of us who have been baptized need to be made aware of and to celebrate gratefully the grace and love God has for our children. We need to know that our children are in God’s hands and that we are not alone in our love for them. And we need to renew our baptismal covenant so that we might be enabled, with God’s help, to incarnate for our children the nature and character of God’s love and bring them up in the Christian life of faith.
Insofar as baptism also announces our children’s full reception into the household of faith, making it possible for them to participate in Holy Communion, it provides another means for making them conscious of God’s love, a love that will nurture and nourish them throughout their lives.
REFORM BY JOHN WESTERHOFF
Regardless of your memories of baptism, it is important for you to understand and hopefully appreciate the radical reform that is found in the baptismal rite in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Among the most significant changes was in moving the rite for Holy Baptism from the first of the pastoral rites to the first rite after the proper liturgies for special days (Ash Wednesday, The Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Great Vigil of Easter) and directly before the Holy Eucharist, thereby helping us to understand that baptism is a full and complete rite of Christian initiation, for either children or adult believers, and unrelated to physical birth.
Holy Baptism is now to be understood as the full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church. This bond which God establishes in baptism is indissoluble. We can reject and/or distort it, but we can never deny who and whose we are. It is God who is the prior actor in baptism, an action to which we only respond. This should explain why a baptism can never be repeated, for while we may break our covenant with God, God never breaks his covenant with us. Our appropriate response, therefore, is to renew our covenant — that is, our response to God’s action — but never to be baptized a second time, for that would imply a denial of God’s action.
Holy Baptism, therefore, is appropriately administered within the context of the Eucharist and is all that is necessary for anyone to participate in Holy Communion. No longer is it necessary to wait for confirmation. Even the smallest child is welcome to consume the bread and/or the wine. Indeed, we now believe that it is because children will have regularly received the sacrament of God’s gracious love ever since they were baptized that they will be enabled to freely, meaningfully, gratefully, and enthusiastically desire to affirm the covenant made for them by their parents and godparents — that is, to will to be confirmed.
Communion and Children
Some worry that a young child cannot understand and therefore should not commune. But do any of us really understand? The Eucharist finally is a divine mystery. More importantly, do we need to understand love to experience it? No, we rather need to experience love so we can understand it. We do not teach nutrition before we feed a child. We do not teach hygiene before we bathe a child. We do not teach theological ethics before we love a child. Understanding results from reflection on experience.
Therefore, someday each child will need to reflect upon her or his experience of participating in this sacrament whose purpose is to make us aware of God’s grace and love; but for now the child only needs to experience that love in being included in, and offered the opportunity to share bread and wine with their new family in Christ.