On Baptism

April 30, 2001

May 1st, 2001

On January 1, 1938 I was baptized in a private ceremony in my grandmother's house by the then Rector of All Saints Church, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. The date was chosen, not because it was the feast of what was called the Circumcision, now known more discreetly as the Holy Name, but because it was the anniversary of my great-grandfather's birth and also lent dignity and high purpose to a New Year's Day party. How times have changed, and yet even in such compromised circumstances I was buried with Christ in his death and reborn into his resurrection and made a limb of Christ's body, the Church.

I very much doubt if any of those present on that occasion, except the priest, had any idea of what the ceremony signified beyond its being something you had done when a child was born. Apart from lingering notions that unbaptized infants were at risk should they contract some fatal illnesses and at best could enjoy a sort of half-life in limbo, along with the cultural expectations that children were to be baptized no matter their family's commitment to the Church or participation in it's life, the deed was done and I was marked as Christ's own forever.

Many centuries ago St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa, addressed a group of newly baptized adults in the course of what we now know as the Easter visit. He challenged them "to become what you are." What did he mean by this stark and urgent phrase? He meant that those who are baptized into Christ embark upon a lifelong process of growth and discovery, of growing up into Christ and coming to know Christ not as some sort of external point of reference, or an example to follow, but as the deepest truth of who we are and are called to be. "I have been crucified with Christ and the life I now live is not my own, but the life Christ lives in me," says St. Paul, who also speaks about Christ being formed in us and our being conformed to the image of the Son.

On that New Year's Day in 1938, something was set in motion that I have spent most of my life trying to catch up with and to understand: it is the mystery - the truth too large for us to fully comprehend - of "Christ in us the hope of glory."

In the rites of our present Book of Common Prayer a notable feature is the Baptismal Covenant. Increasingly it is explicated and reflected upon as the outline of what it means to be a follower of Christ, and as an articulation of the ministry that belongs to all the baptized; all who through water and the Holy Spirit share Christ's eternal priesthood and ongoing ministry of reconciliation. While I fully accept the prominence of the Baptismal Covenant in our preaching and teaching and understanding of ourselves as persons of faith, I am concerned that the Covenant has overshadowed the baptismal action itself, and what God in Christ had brought about in us through the action of the Holy Spirit through a ritual washing and anointing.

What I would like to do in this column over the next few months is explore what happens to us in baptism, and how it relates to the Baptismal Covenant. I do so in large measure for personal reasons. As I said earlier, I am still trying to appropriate and enter more deeply into what it means to have been made Christ's own. Perhaps if I share my reflections with you we will both be able to embrace more fully who we most truly are and are called to be in grace and truth. Perhaps in this way we may enter into an enlarged understanding of the Baptismal Covenant and how we are called to live it, in union with the risen Christ. I suggest that the place to begin is with your own baptism. Here are some questions for reflection: How old were you? What were the circumstances in which it occurred? In what ways are you able, with the Spirit's help, to discern ways that Christ has been formed in you since your baptism? What does baptism mean to you? Ponder these and see where they take you. I shall look forward to continue on these pages next month.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

Tagged in: Baptism Baptism