Monday, January 14, 2013

Remembering our 'rememberable' baptisms

Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Eisleben
A version of this post previously appeared on the ABPnews Blog.

Many churches celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday following Epiphany (January 6). Since Epiphany falls on Sunday in 2013, this year the Baptism of the Lord was celebrated yesterday on January 13. This feast is an appropriate occasion for remembering our own baptisms, in which we took on a new ecclesial identity in Christ when we embraced Christ’s story, the story proclaimed by the church, as our story.

I recently found myself thinking about how churches in my own Baptist tradition might be more intentional about remembering our baptisms when I saw a photo posted on Facebook of a Lutheran baptism performed in a new immersion font in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Eisleben, Germany—the church of Marin Luther’s baptism on November 11, 1483. Luther was baptized as an infant with water poured from a small font, remains of which were incorporated into a reconstructed font that now stands in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. But when the interior of the church was renovated in 2011, a new baptistry suitable for full-immersion baptisms was made the centerpiece of the renovated sanctuary. The top of the pool is level with the floor and is situated at the center of the front of the sanctuary, so that the congregation must look across the baptistry to see the altar and pulpit. Concentric circles in the pattern of the floor radiate outward from the baptistry. No one can worship there without thinking about baptism. On April 29, 2012, the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul was re-opened as the Center of Baptism for the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church in Germany intended to serve as a center for ecumenical reflection on the theology and practice of baptism.

One of the gifts that Baptist churches give to the people they baptize is a baptism that can be personally remembered. (I don’t think that candidates for membership in Baptist churches who were baptized as infants and have subsequently made the faith into which they were baptized their own should be required to be re-baptized with a “believer’s baptism” as a condition for membership, however, but that’s a topic for another discussion.) Baptists of all people have good reason to give attention to the remembrance of their 'rememberable' baptisms.

How might Baptists do this? I invite readers to share their own ideas and/or practices from their congregations in the comments below. I’ll start with the following recommendations:

  • Whenever someone is baptized, include in the worship service an opportunity for members of the congregation to re-commit themselves to their baptismal vows.
  • Regularly include recitation of the Apostles’ Creed (the baptismal creed of the Western church) and the Nicene Creed (the Eucharistic creed of the Western church and the baptismal and Eucharistic creed of the Eastern church) in worship services and call attention to their original role as baptismal confessions—declarations of the biblical story of the Triune God that we claim as our own in baptism. (I’ve explained elsewhere why Baptists can do this without betraying their Baptist heritage.)
  • Place a vessel of water drawn from the baptistry at the back of the sanctuary near the main entrance. Encourage members of the congregation to dip their fingers into it when entering and exiting the sanctuary as a reminder of their baptisms. With proper explanation given, they might also be encouraged to use the fingers dipped into the baptismal water to trace the sign of the cross upon their bodies as a reminder of their identification with Christ in baptism.
  • When the opportunity presents itself to build or re-design a worship space, design and situate the baptistry in such a way as to call attention to this practice so central to Baptist (and Christian) identity. Consider placing it near the main entrance to the worship space, so that worshipers pass by it when entering and exiting. Keep it filled with water, so that every worshiper may see and feel the water of baptism as a baptismal reminder each Sunday. (While I have not seen it in person, my friend Curtis Freeman tells me that the baptistry of the Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he takes his Baptist House of Studies students at Duke Divinity School to practice performing baptism, is “one of the most baptistic baptistries in all Christendom.” It is at the back of the sanctuary, partly inside the sanctuary and partly inside the narthex. The chairs in the sanctuary are moveable and are turned to face the baptistry whenever baptism is part of a service of worship.)
What are your ideas for remembering our 'rememberable' baptisms? How has your congregation been intentional about baptismal remembrance?

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