Liturgy Series: Part 7 – Baptism
Baptism is situated in the context of gathered worship because it announces a social and political reality. (pg. 183)
Today’s installment in the liturgy series brings us to the subject of baptism. On the one hand, I am apprehensive to write this post (for a couple of reasons). On the other hand, I’m very excited to have reached this point in the series because I think baptism is a very important topic. As stated, there is more than one reason I am apprehensive to write this post and I’d like to quickly state why before diving into the subject matter.
The first reason I’m apprehensive to bring baptism into this liturgy series is because baptism doesn’t really seem to be a part of the liturgy. For many churchgoers baptisms are not a common part of the weekly liturgy of their church. Even with this apprehension I still want to move forward with the topic because I do believe that baptism does play a specifically liturgical role (in the way we’ve been discussing liturgy).
My second apprehension in bringing baptism into this series is simply a fear of being out of my depth. While I’ve studied the subject to some degree and hold (strongly) to the position of paedobaptism (infant baptism) there are many convictions I hold about the nature of baptism that I am yet able to articulate or defend as I would like. Be that as it may, I plan to move forward including baptism in this series continuing to lean heavily on James K.A. Smith’s work Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Reformation.
In order to discuss the liturgical importance of baptism I want to (re)emphasize what our focus is in this series which should serve to limit the scope of this post on baptism. According to James K.A. Smith, humans are liturgical creatures that participate in different “liturgies” continually. Whether it be a morning routine, going to the mall, or working in a steel mill we, as humans, are constantly participating in “liturgies.” These liturgies tend to shape in us certain wants and desires. They tell a certain story about the way the world works which tends to point us in a certain direction & desire certain ends. This being the case, Christian (liturgical) worship serves as a counter formation to the “secular liturgies” that shape our lives and desires.
Having stated all that the question now becomes: How does baptism serve as a liturgical formation?
The first thing to consider when asking this question is about the location of baptism. Where is baptism taking place? Baptism takes place (to reference the quote at the top of the post) in the context of gathered worship. What this means is that when someone is baptized they are being reconstituted into a new group of people, a new body politic (to speak technically). Smith says the following in emphasizing how baptism is efficacious in its ability to create a new person and a new people:
Baptism is not just a picture; it also does something. As a sacrament it makes what it promises: a new person and a new people. (pg. 183)
Baptism, as the initiative rite to the Christian faith, serves to make a new person which, simultaneously, creates a new people. Put another way, baptism is a social event. It is not something that is to be considered at a mere individual level, although it certainly has individual repercussions.
The second liturgical function that Smith points out is how it cuts through our social and hierarchical systems. Smith puts in well in saying:
Baptism signifies a radical reordering of the social world in Christ precisely because it signifies that the priesthood is open to all—which is just a way of saying that all, regardless of birth or class, are called and equipped to take up humanity’s creational vocation of being prince(sse)s/priests for the world. (183)
Baptism serves as a constant reminder that God chooses that which is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). Whereas the priesthood of the old covenant was available only to a select few based on blood. The waters of baptism open the priesthood to all serving as a testament forever that water truly is thicker than blood.
This leads us in to our third and final point which is that baptism constitutes a new family and a new household. In today’s world, it is this point that serves as the most liturgically formative considering our modern propensity to exalt “the family” to a place of ultimacy. Because the sacrament of baptism takes place in gathered worship it cannot be considered something that the congregation is merely a spectacle to. Rather, baptism is something that everyone participates in because baptism calls for both the congregation’s recognition of a new member and to make covenantal promises to the one being baptized.
This view of baptism both challenges and encourages us because it tells us that our blood families are no longer our first families. This is challenging due to our current tendency in the West (especially America) to idolize the family as a messianic institution. This is also encouraging because this new baptismal family frees us from our sinful reliance on looking for salvation from fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers (genetically speaking).
Smith looks to Alexander Schmemann’s work For the Life of the World to help elucidate this point more clearly. The following are some key quotes to see how the liturgical formation of baptism helps to free the family from the impossible load that has been placed upon it:
The “idolization” of the family…results in an almost impossible pressure upon the family to function as a closed, self-sufficient, autonomous unit. (pg. 186)
Baptismal promises counter such a configuration [of the family]: love and its obligations traverse the boundaries of “private residences” and “nuclear families” because they initiate us into a houhold that is bigger than what is under the roof of our house. (pg. 186)
Baptism becomes an almost subversive sacrament that revolutionizes many of the notions of social life that we have inherited, even those that claim to be “conservative” and “religious.” (pg. 186)
Baptism opens the home, liberating it from the burden of impossible self-sufficiency, while also opening it to the “disruptive friendships” that are the mark of the kingdom of God. (pg. 186-87)
We see in these quotations the ways that baptism is both challenging and freeing to our modern sensibilities. In many ways the modern home has been closed off from the world around it. Even the church is not allowed to step across the threshold of the home and offer input. Unfortunately, the modern Christian has taken the secular ideals of autonomy and applied them to the family in such a way that seems “Christian.” Yet, as we’ve seen above, Christian baptism breaks down the home to create a new home, a new family, even a new city.
Food for thought.