Monday, December 10, 2012

Baptism as Conception, Gestation, and Birth of the Church...

The following comes out of an Abductive Reasoning Exercise on the core parts of the Episcopal Baptismal Rite. The point of such an exercise is not to make definitive linear statements but to allow possible systems to manifest out of a gestalt. To this end what follows is one of many possible conceptualizations of the rite in order to gain perspective not definitive theological statements.

“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The Bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”[1] This opening rubric defines the essential role of the Baptismal Rite. To perform this role the Rite presents a certain structure and thus creates a system of limitations and roles on certain theological concepts. The structure takes the form of a conception, gestation, and birth narrative for the church and thus allows for the initiation of new members.

“There is one Body and one Spirit; There is one hope in God’s call to us”.[2] The transcendent nature of the church is considered to be singular having one Body, that of Christ, and one Spirit, that of the Paraclete. The practical nature of the church, however, often seems far from such, especially during the time of change involved with its growth through new membership. The Sacrament of Baptism is the bridge between these two realities; there is the “inward and spiritual grace” of the transcendent singular church and the “outward and visible” sign of that, baptism, to overcome the division often experienced in communities.[3]

The Persons of the Trinity come actively into play in the Rite in the common order of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the very opening of the Rite there is acknowledged “One God and Father of All”[4], there is a turning to Jesus Christ by the initiates during the examination,[5] and then the introduction of the Holy Spirit during the thanksgiving over the water.[6] The progression mimics the metaphor, limited but useful, of a time of the Father, followed by the earthly ministry of Jesus, which is concluded with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The rite uses this metaphor in its structure, but recognizes its limitations with its prose when it notes “the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation”.[7] This internal notation, that any singular metaphor cannot contain the reality of the Trinity, is important in its own right.

At the moment it is first necessary to ask how is the rite using this metaphor of linear history. The broad metaphor is that of the creation of the world by the Father, the reordering of the world by Jesus Christ, and the birth of the Church by the Holy Spirit. At any specific Baptism there is the part of the Creation, the initiates leave one space and are received by the Church, the church then reorders itself by entering into its vows again as a new whole with the initiates turned members of Christ’s Body, the Holy Spirit then enters and the new life is bestowed upon the initiates and the church recognizes its unity with the newly baptized. In this last step the church goes through a practical rebirth and is brought closer to the Transcendent church at the same time that the initiates gain new life, are born again, themselves.

This new life imagery, that in Baptism “we are reborn by the Holy Spirit”,[8] is essential to the rite. To expand this birth metaphor back along the already presented linear metaphor would give the following sequence: The Father initiates a conception, Jesus Christ is essentially present for a gestation, the Holy Spirit then induces and the water breaks and it is then that the birth occurs. Throughout the process the Priest acts as midwife.

God the Father is present as progenitor. All the people present, initiates and baptized, are expected to pronounce “One God and Father of All” even before the examination much more the Baptism.[9] This is an acknowledgment of the preexisting connection between all involved inherent to being part of creation. It is an initial echo of the ever building connectivity of all involved as family. The conception occurs during the presentation and examination. The initiates are first named and recognized by individuals from the community, at this point they are at the edge of the church’s space. During the examination the initiates “renounce” the space they are in and “turn to Jesus Christ”, towards the Body of the Church.[10] This is the moment of conception, where outlying parts are brought into contact and pass through a barrier. It is important to note that God is equally “Mother” here having created both that which is entering and that which is being entered. The stress on “Father” is traditional but also a focusing on that which is entering, the initiates, over that which is being entered, the community. This stage is finished when the Priest commands, “Let us join with those…” at which point the initial union is complete.[11]

The new forming community as a whole then commits themselves to Christ, every one renews.[12] This is the Body of the Church, the Body of Christ, stating who and what it is and noting its growth as such over time. The Baptismal Covenant begins with the Apostles Creed, a statement of beliefs from the early church with its own history of growth from the Roman Symbol. The creed is then followed by five additional expectations that the community has added. The people then pray seven prayers that parallel the six questions of the examination, thus taking up the for the initiates, and viably each other also, the burden of walking away from that which is evil and turning towards Jesus Christ. The priest then brings this stage to an end with a prayer that shows an interesting blending of the groups: “Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized… may live…”.[13] This single prayer has two equally viable readings. In one reading it is a projection for those about to be baptized while in the other it is a statement for all who are baptized. This is the blurriness held by all at this moment of great transition before the initiates are fully part of the community and a new understanding of church, a church reborn, comes about.

Before this rebirth can occur, however, the essential element, water, must be included and with it comes the Holy Spirit. The prayer begins by explaining the place of water in history which details both the Holy Spirit moving over it at creation as well as its central roll in Jesus’ baptism where he was “anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah.[14] The water is then sanctified “by the power of your Holy Spirit” and a distinct doxology follows “To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit” that names only one member of the Trinity.[15] While the birth metaphor calls for a “water breaking” moment this is truly a breaking into the rite by the physical world through water. This physicality, through water, is one of the “essential parts of Baptism”.[16] The Baptism is complete when the sign of the cross is made upon the initiate and they “are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever” and with that last action, invoking the Holy Spirit, the initiates are fully part of the Body of Christ.[17]

The process concludes with all the baptized acknowledging that the new individuals now “share with us in [Christ’s] eternal priesthood”.[18] In so doing they recognized a new equality that is then played out in the sharing of the peace by all on a new level. It is here that the gathered Body of Christ engages with itself for the first time. The practical reality of what is the Body of Christ gathered at that moment for worship has changed. The whole Body of Christ, the Church as a whole, has also changed. The final charge of the Priest is "Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom every family in heaven and earth is named, grant you to be strengthened with might by his Holy Spirit, that, Christ dwelling in your hearts by faith, you may be filled with all fullness of God. Amen"This is a statement to all the church to keep growing, to become more full, to turn more towards Jesus. It is a call to do exactly what has just been done, again and again. It is a call to enter into the process of growth and rebirth, for both individuals and the church, anew through baptism.

[1] BCP 298
[2] BCP 299
[3] BCP 857
[4] BCP 299
[5] BCP 302
[6] BCP 306
[7] BCP 306
[8] BCP 306
[9] BCP 299
[10] BCP 302
[11] BCP 303
[12] BCP 303
[13] BCP 306
[14] BCP 306
[15] BCP 307
[16] BCP 308
[17] BCP 308
[18] BCP 308