Those who live near the ocean know the primal power of water to give life. The swirling water can release repressed emotions; it’s surprising how quickly old wounds can heal in the clean, salty waves.
For centuries Christians have gone down to the waters, deep and strange, seeking this life.
In the early Church, candidates for baptism gathered in the dark of night, naked, to wade into the deep. This was no conventional rite. They threw off their clothes to show themselves naked before God—without secrets, without shame. As one ancient writer says, ‘Casting off these fading leaves which veil our lives, we should once again present ourselves before the eyes of our Maker.” The candidates came to wash away the stain of lives lived hard and intemperately, the sin that seems to sit in the flesh.
They called this washing a rebirth. They said that they were putting on Christ, like a garment to clothe their nakedness; and, indeed, coming up from the waters, they received a brilliant white robe. Sometimes they spoke darkly of the deep waters of death. They went down to the waters to die—a kind of symbolic drowning. They would die to their old life, to their old self, with all its sin and disappointment, and rise up new people.
These were mystical waters—waters for the “mystical washing away of sin” (BCP, “Publick Baptism of Infants”.)
Perhaps you wonder, then, why we should baptise infants, who haven’t lived long enough to sin—let alone to mess it up completely. And that is quite right—infants do not sin.
Yet our teachers say that human nature bears an ancient wound: we long to fill our heart-hungers with false satisfactions. Our desire runs away with us. And from the hunger of our heart, long frustrated, comes social sin—a whole culture of sinfulness. We live within it, and its true extent we cannot know.
Therefore, even little children must go down to the waters—not for cleansing from their own sin, but for cleansing from social sin. Yes, even in the heart of an infant, the sin of the world has a mysterious anchorage. They were born into it, and grow into it.
There are so many lures for our greed, our pride, our ambition. Indeed, these were the sins with which Jesus was tempted in the desert. There are so many promises of happiness which come to nothing. So many false satisfactions. All that shopping, defensiveness, and status-seeking only makes for spiritual exhaustion. Our hearts grow dry and we cry out for water!
So we are baptised. We receive living waters, the Holy Spirit of God. We receive the Spirit of life and growth and power. That is how we shall grow into our true selfhood, without distortion. We shall grow up like a watered tree, “rooted in charity,” (ibid) offering our strength and shelter to many people. Rising up, we become people for others. We will become fruitful. All this is possible for people who, with God’s help, live lives of simplicity, humility and discernment.
I sign you with the sign of the cross, to show that you are marked as Christ’s own forever. So we are anointed prophets, priests and kings. We take our place in the new society of the Church.
And we receive a candle of enlightenment, to show that we walk by the light of Christ. This is not the end of our journey, but the beginning. We have become wayfarers. And sometimes, when the way becomes dark and trackless, we will need that light. We will be tested, and we will need discernment. We need strength to see the water-wells and springs along the way, from which we might draw living waters.
By God’s help, and with the guidance of their parents and godparents, little children will make it to their confirmation—a kind of staging-post on the way. They will have grown wiser. They will renounce greed, pride, and all the sin of the world for themselves. This is the new human being we need to organise a world according to God’s heart.
When I was considering my first baptism next week, I read the Book of Common Prayer Service, “the Publick Baptism of Infants.” I found there a wonderful seventeenth century prayer. You would probably never hear it read these days; but there are still echoes of it in our services. It goes like this:
Almighty and everlasting God, who of thy great mercy didst save Noah and his family in the ark from perishing by water; and also didst safely lead the children of Israel thy people through the Red Sea, figuring thereby thy holy Baptism; and by the Baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ in the river Jordan, didst sanctify Water to the mystical washing away of sin; We beseech thee, for thine infinite mercies, that thou wilt mercifully look upon this child; wash her and sanctify her with the Holy Ghost; that she being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being steadfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally she may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen