Celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord

New beginnings begin at the font

by Marie Mainard O’Connell | Presbyterians Today

January is a month when people embrace new beginnings. It is a time to start fresh or even start over. Resolutions are written down and the Christmas season ends with the feast of Epiphany, Jan. 6. It is a day to remember not only the Magi’s faithful following of the nativity star, but to also begin seeing God in flesh in the way of Christ working among us. But on the heels of Epiphany is an often-overlooked celebration that can have a meaningful impact on one’s faith — the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord Sunday. On this day, congregations not only recall how Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism, but they are also reminded how baptism is an important beginning for them as well.

It was the dreaded church “calendaring meeting” — juggling special Sundays, worship themes, vacation dates and competing programming for the months ahead. We were finally past Advent to languidly plan January.

“OK, if we moved Epiphany, which falls on a Friday this year, to the Sunday after, then the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, which follows the Sunday after the Sunday in which we observe Epiphany, gets bumped right before Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. So, which theme do we celebrate?” That was the question racking our brains.

The discussion that followed revealed a host of challenges with the Baptism of the Lord Sunday — traditionally observed the Sunday following Epiphany, Jan. 6 — that went beyond calendaring. The challenges included a vague discomfort with the Gospels’ disagreement on how Jesus’ baptism occurred; a well-worn ritual remembering baptism that left folks ambivalent on the “baptism-lite rite”; an embarrassing reminder of how few baptisms have occurred of late within the church; and (honestly?) the distaste for the disused, dusty — even ugly — fonts with unwieldy tops and shallow basins that did not exactly invite creative inspiration. Why focus on Jesus’ baptism if Martin Luther King Jr. Day seemed better for prophetic vision and kingdom values? Well, why not celebrate both?

Reviving an old feast

As congregations continue to find their new normal from Covid-imposed restrictions and return to life together, new ways to celebrate one of the oldest feasts in the church might be welcome indeed.

Intimately related to Epiphany and the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in the act of baptism by John the Baptist, the Baptism of the Lord Sunday is arguably a necessary part of the liturgical calendar. But if our calendaring conversation revealed anything, it was that practices associated with the Lord’s baptism need a fresh breath of Spirit-filled air. We might even ask, “How can we savor baptism as often as we savor communion?”

We know that our baptisms are never “one-and-done” experiences that occur for many so early in our faith journey that we hardly recall them. Living out our baptismal promises is a constant evolution of discernment and belonging, remembering not only that we are named and claimed by God, but that our identities are themselves unfolding into the Kingdom of God. So then, how do we do that?

Make a splash — weekly

Perhaps the bare minimum is to reference baptism more frequently in worship — perhaps even every time the body of Christ gathers. Congregations could start by moving fonts from their corners to the center of the chancel and fill them with water as a specific act in worship, as part of the opening prayer or the Call to Worship. If one’s font is not suitable — perhaps too heavy to move from its relegated-for-decades corner — it is perfectly reasonable to place a large bowl on a stand somewhere more prominently in the sanctuary or on the communion table. The goal is accessible imagery.

During her time serving at Argenta Presbyterian Church of North Little Rock, Arkansas, the Rev. Anne Russ, now a New Yorker who has started a media ministry filled with resources called “Doubting Believer,” would use the baptismal font during the Assurance of Forgiveness that followed the confession. And she would use it “loudly and audibly” — to quote the Book of Common Worship — pouring water from a large pitcher into a big glass bowl, even splashing about for those in attendance to hear and see it.

“We baptize babies because we believe God claims us before we ever know God,” said Russ. “We talk about remembering our baptism, but part of that is remembering that God loves us before we can love God back. So, I pour the water in the font during the Assurance of Forgiveness as a reminder that this is about who God is — not what we do. God’s claim on us and God’s forgiveness does not depend on us.” Thus, adds Russ, the grace of God’s gift can be enacted each Sunday. Churches can begin to educate and experiment using the font weekly for a season, starting with the Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

Water is not necessary

Every week, an elder of Grace Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas (who’s too modest to be named for this article!), considers the liturgical calendar and Scriptural themes and, after consulting her closet of materials, decorates the chancel accordingly. Most captivating is the water and baptismal imagery she so frequently creates.

Using colored ribbons, swaths of cloth and a host of everyday items, she makes simple illustrations to allow the congregation to visually meditate on Scripture, reminiscent of iconography or stained-glass windows. Congregants can contemplate a new sculpture each Sunday. It sounds like a lot of work to a harried pastor, but for her, it’s a gift she is blessed to share, and the congregation is grateful.

According to her pastor, the Rev. Sara Anne Berger, “The visual connections she makes between the space and the story not only emphasize themes, but allow me to not preach certain elements, because they are already present for the congregation to consider.”

The visual reflections help worshipers recognize themes across biblical stories, but notably the ongoing imagery of water woven throughout all of Scripture and the seasons.

What would it be like to empower youth or artists in your midst to visually share the Word for a special Sunday or series? A few yards of cloth can go a long way to connect the font and table to the stories of grace that are abundant in the pews.

Honoring and sharing rituals

Both the Book of Common Worship and the PC(USA) website contain several liturgies for remembering the baptismal covenant, but there is nothing to stop a leader from designing a service that reflects the baptismal tradition of a specific congregation. One church gives candles to children at baptism to be lit each year on their anniversary. An older member in one such church wistfully noted, “We didn’t have candles when I was young,” and was overjoyed when presented with a candle of their own. Perhaps traditions reserved for the newly baptized can be shared with the whole congregation on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday — handing out candles or simply singing verses of “Jesus Loves Me” might reignite the rituals of a specific church community.

One possibility is to invite worshipers to remember their baptism as an act of imagination. Consider walking worshipers through the memory of their own baptism — or to craft the image if they were too young to remember. Invite them to recollect who would have been there, what they might have worn and who spoke promises, and have them feel the water. Or invite the congregation to meditate on what it might be like to be baptized in their current church home, at that particular font and surrounded by those present at the time. Encourage folks to feel the love and support of their congregation that would make baptismal promises not just to children, but to everyone affirming their faith in Christ.

On the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, allow attendees to come forward to touch the water in the font and make or receive the sign of the cross. Some congregations might appreciate water poured over their hands by the minister with a phrase reminiscent of Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes, such as “Remember that you are baptized into Christ, and to Christ you shall return.”

If moving to the font is a challenge, judicious use of an aspergillum could make for an interesting teaching moment, sermon illustration or act of remembrance. An aspergillum is a liturgical implement common in high church traditions that is used to sprinkle holy water. It can be as fancy as a hollow silver mace, or as simple as a branch of hyssop or bundle of brush-like leaves. Some have sponges or internal reservoirs that dispense holy water when shaken, while others must periodically be dipped in an aspersorium — a “holy water” bucket, known to art historians as a situal.

As suggested by Barbara Brown Taylor in her book “Holy Envy,” appreciation of other traditions can encourage us to become more creative and open in our own practices. Russ once used the children’s moment to place the baptismal bowl in the center aisle and encouraged children to dip palm fronds in the water and sprinkle the congregation. “It may have gotten a little out of hand,” she admits of their exuberance, “but it was a fun way to connect baptism with joy.” And it was certainly memorable.

The remembrance of baptism can also become more tangible with marbles or decorative stones held in one’s fist during the Confession of Sins, and then sunk into the font as an embodied Assurance of Pardon. Sins can also disappear upon the wonder of dissolving paper immersed in water.

Seashells, that classic image of baptism, can also be part of the Baptism of the Lord Sunday service. Encourage worshipers to keep the shell near their kitchen or bathroom sinks for a quick prayer during the everyday washing of dishes and hands. Even bubbles can make for charming little bits of floating grace, blown by the Spirit to splash where they may. Winter weather aside, some church campuses are fortunate to have outdoor fountains, creeks or rivers, and could appreciate concluding worship outside to touch living water — or if it’s cold, just appreciate the sound and look of the water.

Incorporating kin-dom imagery

Worship planners tend to default to the simplicity of “what we did last year,” whatever the celebration. Rather than leaning solely on tradition, though, what might be gained from an intentional effort to combine the Baptism of the Lord Sunday with the acknowledgment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday? Perhaps an examination of a favorite passage from King could expound on the Scripture. For instance, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” demonstrates the classic James 2 reading of verses 14–26 about faith and works.

In the letter, King argues forcefully to his audience of moderate white colleagues that his actions are appropriate as a Christian and an American; he is neither an outsider, nor “unwise and untimely” in his work for nonviolent resistance against racist barriers to civil rights. By placing his letter alongside baptismal liturgies and the theology of baptism, Presbyterians can see connections that tie King’s rhetoric to the identity of one’s baptism into Christ.

King’s words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” work rhetorically and theologically precisely because the “garment” is also the shared baptismal gown. King’s audience of baptized Christians, cleansed and claimed as God’s own to work for God’s justice and stand alongside the oppressed, are called together to be more like Christ and to grow into his loving sacrificial nature for the sake of loving others.

In his letter, King explains that their methods included a time of intentional instruction like the catechism of new believers before baptism: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating? Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”

King’s preparation for protest also echoes a new believer’s profession of faith when asked one of the baptismal questions in the Book of Common Worship, “Do you renounce all evil, and powers in the world which defy God’s righteousness and love? Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love to your life’s end?”

Life renewed at the font

What would happen if we treated our baptismal promises as the path that leads us to action today, to prepare for suffering in the likeness of Christ on behalf of others? Sermons, liturgy or educational conversations can all explore these ideas. A new responsive litany could be crafted from quotes of the “Letter” beside a Reaffirmation of Baptismal Covenant litany, focusing on the prophet Amos’ powerful water imagery, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.”

By the time you read this story, you will have already planned your January services for 2023, but that doesn’t mean you must wait to remember the power baptism holds in your lives. Fresh and frequent connections to water and the font — to mission and to action — could be made as often as each Sunday, or as intentional as each communion or commissioning service. What fresh new streams are bubbling up in your community and ready to flow into the kingdom?

Marie Mainard O’Connell is an active member of the Presbytery of Arkansas, and interested in transitions in ministry. She lives in Little Rock with her spouse and three kids, three cats and six chickens.

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