It is my special privilege to witness the gathering around the baptismal font of the many generations of “saints”, all representing their own journeys to God. What a wonderful, visual reminder that God is with us at all points of our lives, at any age or place. With the mundane and ubiquitous images of water, oil, and light, a baptism welcomes us into a relationship with the transcendent power of God: it invites us to participate in the reality much greater than our own, immediate existence. As you witness the ritual, I invite you to ponder what these symbols mean to you, personally. I always ask this of the baptismal candidates and their parents. Water, oil, light... present daily in the world around us, yet almost magically life-giving, nourishing, refreshing, healing, cleansing, illuminating, reflecting... awakening? Of course, each time I ask this, I learn something new. For example, last time, a candidate’s family suggested to me that the gray stone of the font, one of the oldest objects in our church building, might give us a sense of a rock solid foundation of our faith, shaped and preserved by generations of those who came before us.
Notwithstanding the material of the font, water, oil, and light are universally important symbols of all times and cultures predating Christianity. Jesus also joined people who came to wash off their faults and flaws and bad choices in the river, indicating that God chooses to immerse his/herself into the sometimes-muddy waters of our lives and hearts, cleansing and renewing them through a continued presence with us and the entire creation. So, I will bless the water in our font to symbolize that God has, in fact, already blessed the lives of every baptismal candidate from the time of their conception (cf Ps 139). Therein lies a mystery of baptism, and that of any sacrament: who is truly at work here? Does God do something to the candidate and/or witnesses gathered, or do the hands of the people?
I think what goes on is best summarized in the words of my eldest child, which she said on occasion of her baby sister’s baptism. I had asked her then (age 6), “Are you excited about A’s baptism” – “... um... yeah... why?” – “well why do we baptize people?” – “because they are part of God” – “what does that mean?” – “God knows them very, very well, and says, “you are the best, best, best!!” Need I say more? Of course, it is exciting! In every baptism we celebrate our already being, yet paradoxically becoming, “part of God”. We all have a sense of reaching out towards something beyond ourselves. The relationship we have with God begins at the time of our conception -- not when the pandemic lets up, or our parents get all the travel schedules aligned, or when this “religion thing” finally begins to mean something to us. And, quite unlike the dove in the baptismal story, who merely hovers over the body of Jesus, the spirit of God exists at the center of our being; mysteriously united with our truest self, and that is why God “knows us so very well”.
No, God will not always delight in us, will not always say “with you I am well pleased” as it was at Jesus’ baptism. We will do wrong from time to time, we will not be the greatest at everything we do, we will not always feel all that thankful that God has put us on this earth, and most of us will always keep looking for something that might bring us more joy that we already have. So, what makes us “the best” in God’s eyes isn’t so much our own talents, or even how well we behave and appropriate Christian values. The latter is often the reason parents have to bring kids to baptism, as though it can somehow ensure the “right” moral path on its own. Alas, baptism is no magic. God and humans are in it together -- in this sacrament, in the candidate’s journey to the font, and out into the world. Never by our work, always through our effort!
From the earliest decades of Christian tradition, baptisms involved an exchange of promises. The Bible is a record of innumerable generations reflecting on their understanding of God’s promises made to all creation. In return, we – the sponsors, parents, and our community gathered here – will promise something as well. What we promise will essentially amount to that, with God’s help, we will continue to allow and foster the life of the Holy Spirit in us and in those whom we bring to be baptized. We will promise to keep learning about ourselves and about God, that one day, we become at peace with this knowledge. And finally, we will promise our sincere trust that to God, we are “the best, best, best”. The best simply by virtue of being created, sustained by, delighted in, brought to this font, helped to grow in faith and talents, and forever precious to our divine Creator. Amen.