Christening - just social?
Water of Life.
Who should be Godparents?
|In a special
feature (Church Times 2nd August 2002), Jeremy Fletcher draws
interesting parallels between the water of baptism and the water of
[Reproduced by permission]
In baptism-preparation sessions in parish ministry,
I increasingly came to rely on two questions: “What has made you
bring your child for baptism?” and “Why do we use water?”
Stumbling responses to the first often included (grand)parental
expectation, a general sense of wanting the baby “done”, and a
real desire to give thanks to God. The 16-stone leather-clad
“nightclub security provider” who wanted his daughter to be
publicly “made a child of the Lord Jesus and baptised into
repentance and new life in the name of the Holy Trinity” did
take me by surprise, but every answer got us somewhere.
The second question was always less fruitful initially. Baptism
and water are so intertwined that it was like asking why we
breathe air. Just like breathing air, drinking water keeps us
alive. Water washes us clean. We are born through water — the
breaking of waters in childbirth is a recent experience for many
mothers bringing their children to church. And, more dangerously,
water can kill us.
Here the conversation would become more complex, especially when
the parents heard that the earliest meaning of baptizo was “to
plunge in”, “to overwhelm” or “to drown”.
In my youth, people still used to dye things, and, in Jesus'
youth, to baptise also meant to “dye”. Plunging cloth into dye
to transform it is a wonderful image of the Christian being
transformed through faith, but was one lost on most baptism
parents. Drowning, though, was more topical, and much closer to
home for some, if only from news bulletins.
I was expounding on this once to a study group, and talking about
“the waters of death” when it dawned on me that one couple had
started coming to church after a memorial service for their son,
who had been lost at sea some years before, and whose body had
never been recovered. Had I remembered sooner, I would have soft-pedalled that part of the talk.
In the end, I was glad I hadn’t. The pastoral conversations that
ensued deepened my understanding of the challenge of being
baptised into the death of Christ, and, the couple said, brought
them closer to the hope of the resurrection.
Talking with people who had lost their son to water brought home
the absolute finality of death, where before I had a doctrine
without substance. For their part, the completion of the doctrine,
that from death comes new life in Christ, helped them to
incorporate a personal tragedy into a life lived with some hope
for the future.
The most profound symbols in human life, the archetypal ones, are
the most basic. Bread and wine for sustenance and joy. Blood for
death and sacrifice, for health and vitality. Human touch for
friendship and community. Every human grouping enacts rituals
around these things, though our developed and materialistic
society manages to hide them pretty well.
Water is just such a staple, and the force behind much human
ritual. Our preparation sessions would go on to look at water in
the Bible. Though our Nottinghamshire ex-mining folk were not up
on the place of the wilderness in Old Testament spirituality, and
the miracle of plants leaping into life after the spring rains,
they knew about the Flood, and weren’t too bad on Moses and his
people walking through water from slavery to freedom, even if he
really looked like Charlton Heston. So we could talk about the
rituals remembering this deliverance, and see how water could
symbolise both death and life, destruction and hope.
One of the prayers over the water in Common Worship contains these
We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death.
By it we share his resurrection.
Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Meditation on these lines could occupy the rest of my days. There
is a wonderful tension, for instance, between burial in the ground
and immersion in water. Stone and soil are solid and heavy, where
water is light, but no less suffocating.
Water springing up to eternal life is a picture of the
resurrection we can only imagine, but are schooled to long for.
Whereas Mary Magdalen is told not to touch the risen Christ, with
water we are touched with the reality of his risen life. The
waters of birth are the waters of rebirth, and I imagine these as
a Victoria Falls rather than a babbling brook.
It is the business of our preparation for, and preaching about,
baptism to make the connections between a staple that is so basic
that we scarcely think about it, and the deep mysteries of the
faith which few outside the Church dare to explore. But perhaps
the essential task is not to explain, which can often demystify,
but to demonstrate. Nothing destroys a symbol more than saying
exactly what it means. Let the water do the talking.
Of course, if required, only a drop will do, and, in one sense,
there is no greater symbolism in copious amounts. Yet I am more
convinced now that there should be plenty to make a splash with. I
first baptised someone by submersion in a swimming pool. (I
confessed to my incumbent that I was disturbed at his idea for the
congregation all to jump in at the end for a “fellowship
Up until then, for me, the water of baptism had been safely
confined in small bowls that only a confused bird might drown in.
The water in the swimming baths was deep, was for enjoyment and
refreshment, and was potentially dangerous too.
My fears were allayed. As a body of people, we rejoiced in new
life brought through the death and resurrection of Jesus the
Christ, and celebrated our unity in the one baptism we shared. I
had more questions over the fate of the water, which was being
used as we left by the Nottingham Kayak Club, but decided to leave
that for the sacramental theologians.
Though water is basic, we domesticate it at our peril if baptism
is to speak. In the early centuries of the Church, fonts were
adult-sized, and the community gathered in them or around them to
welcome those making the perilous decision to join the Christian
Fonts or baptisteries were outside or just inside the door,
symbolising that entry into the body of Christ was through burial
and resurrection in him. When most baptisms came to be of
children, fonts became child-sized, and the ceremony more of a
celebration within a settled community.
In England, 75 per cent of babies are not baptised, and adult
baptisms are on the increase. Perhaps it is time for fonts to be
enlarged, for the amount of water to increase, and for the
resonances of cleansing, refreshment, death, life, birth and
resurrection to leap off the page and into the water.
There is nothing more radical in the human life than the rejection
of the way of the “world”, repentance for all that is wrong,
the choosing of freedom and forgiveness,
and the embracing of the way of a disciple. The water should play
its part in this, symbolising life, indicating death, and,
literally and spiritually, washing clean and making new.
The Revd Jeremy Fletcher is Canon Precentor of York Minster.