On Easter Sunday our baby boy, Muggins, was baptized in the Presbyterian church I grew up in. Our other three kids had all been baptized there, so we saw fit to stay the course with the most recent addition to our family. Beau and I really like the idea — actually, the ancient tradition — of presenting a baby to God in thanks and covenant.
It follows that as parents we have, since the raising-up-of-the-Blake-children-the-right-way project began, wondered over the Presbyterian tradition of infant baptism. The Bible largely seems to point to baptism as an individual’s (mature) decision to be washed of one’s old life and to begin a new life as a Christian. Beau and I haven’t necessarily been convinced, then, of the appropriateness of a parent making the baptism decision for a child. We wondered if a simple dedication of the baby (our promise, as parents, to do our best to bring the child up to know a loving God, in a Christian home; the promise of the church members to support the family in that endeavor) wouldn’t be more appropriate.
And so, before the baptism of this youngest of ours, I asked the minister who would be performing the baptism (he’s a higher-up in the Yellowstone Presbytery) about the theology behind it all.
In answer, he first pointed out that the Jewish tradition of (in one way or another) officially presenting a baby to God is an ancient one, dating back to Old Testament days. Then, in Jesus’ time, when baptism became the gesture of belief and renewal, entire households were baptized. Acts 16:32-34 says, “Then Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord to him and to everyone in his house. At that hour of the night, the jailer took them and washed their wounds. And without delay, he and all his household were baptized.” (We can presume that “all his household” could have included infants and/or children.) At some point in the last 2,000 years, then, infant baptism became (at least for Presbyterians and some other Protestants) standard procedure for babies born into Christian families.
An infant, however, does not yet comprehend belief and is not yet in need of renewal (excepting the fact that the baby is a human baby, and all humans naturally possess a sinful nature). So why baptize an infant as a sign of new commitment and cleansing? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that an infant baptism has a little different meaning than an adult baptism does. For Presbyterians, infant baptism signifies that the parents believe the child was born into God’s family, and that the child will be inherently sinful and in need of salvation, and, furthermore, that the parents are willing to take ownership of the child’s need for salvation until the child is mature enough to handle his relationship with God by himself. Ideally, that Presbyterian baby will later (as a teen) be “confirmed” in the church, making a public commitment to take responsibility for his own faith, relieving the parents of the task.
According to the minister who baptized Muggins, there’s no need for a person who was baptized as an infant to be baptized again as an adult; it’s optional, of course, but our big God doesn’t need to see that physical act played out again for an individual. Infant baptism, then, is almost like the parents are checking something off of the spiritual to-do list for the child at a very young age.
On Easter Sunday morning, as we hurried to get our family out the door and to the church dressed in Sunday best, our daughter Emi…
… was asking a lot of questions about baptism and what it all means. I did my best to explain it in terms she could understand.
Later, during the children’s sermon at the church, as the youngsters gathered in front of the congregation to visit with the minister, 5-year-old Emi proved that she had heard what I was saying. When the minister asked the kids if they knew why we baptize babies, Emi, who loves an audience, spoke up loud and clear in her little one-tooth-missing lisp. She said:
“It’s like Muggins is a little baby calf… and we’re going to put God’s brand on him right away… so everyone knows who he belongs to!”
Well then. My heart was near to bursting sitting in the front pew of that church, listening to my beautiful daughter repeat almost exactly what I had told her. She’s smart. She believes. And everything is gonna be okay.
(The church crowd was fairly wowed by her mini-sermon.)
So Muggins has been branded. They have all been branded. That doesn’t mean that they won’t someday jump over the fence to what they believe to be a greener pasture. That doesn’t mean the bad guy won’t someday try to smear those brands and steal one or all; it doesn’t mean their brands won’t fade and grow over with time.
But as any good brand inspector could tell you, no matter what happens in the years to come, that original brand will always be there.
They have all been branded. And we turn them out onto the good summer grass that is life still at home with Mom and Dad, and we try not to worry about the future. Because worrying doesn’t do any good anyhow.
And because God’s got this.
They are branded; they are baptized. All four of ’em. Someday their faith will be their own responsibility, but for right now, for a few precious years, it’s up to me and their dad. And I think the baptism itself is not so important as the intentional weight-bearing of that responsibility.
© Tami Blake