We baptized our fifth child on a Saturday morning in January. It was bitterly cold outside, but the church was warm. There were the usual elements: salt, chrism and water. Satan and his works were rejected. A new Christian was born.
As a member of the laity, I have a lot of baptism-related memories. For one thing, I can recall two of my own baptisms, as well as seven sibling baptisms. That’s fairly remarkable, given that I have only four siblings; obviously the seven were not all valid. (A valid baptism marks the soul indelibly and cannot be repeated.)
Our family was Mormon, but three of us eventually converted to Catholicism and one of us to Orthodoxy. I left the faith of my fathers first, and I now have the honor of being the only person in attendance at all the family baptisms.
I thought about baptism a lot as a teenager because at that time I regularly participated in the Mormon practice of receiving baptism by proxy, on behalf of people who have died. Obviously I now don’t consider those baptisms to be valid, but it’s still an interesting memory.
A couple of times a year our Mormon leaders would gather our youth group together and ferry us to the nearest Mormon temple, where we would change into white jumpsuits. One by one, we waded into a pool of water, where we were repeatedly submerged on behalf of deceased strangers. You never really knew how many souls you were going to represent on a given visit to the baptismal pool. On some trips there might be six or seven “proxy” baptisms for each teen present; one time I remember doing 25.
It was explained to us that the beneficiaries would have the opportunity to accept or refuse the work we had done on their behalf. For those who chose to accept, we had secured a wonderful gift, and in the life to come we could expect them to greet us with great joy and gratitude. It was nice to think about that, and the pleasure it gave me may have been a precursor to the comfort I now get from praying for the souls in purgatory.
“Baptism for the dead” is definitely a strange idea, and it’s easy to laugh about it now, perhaps making a joke in the spirit of the 1999 film The Sixth Sense. (“I’ve been baptized for dead people!”) I really used to enjoy those trips, though, and I think the experience helped to prepare me for a genuinely sacramental faith.
Though there is something vaguely corporate about this assembly-line style of baptism, the fact that they wanted us to do it clearly underscored a belief that something real was happening in the baptism itself.
When I encountered Catholicism, I was totally unfazed by the suggestion that there could be metaphysically efficacious sacraments. The Mormon approach underscored another principle, too: Baptism has to involve real, physical bodies. Corporeality matters. It’s what we teenagers had that our post-mortem counterparts ostensibly lacked (since they hadn’t yet been resurrected).
The baptism of adult converts can be a powerful thing to witness, and I cherish the memories of my siblings’ adult baptisms, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit more than my own. (At my own I felt overpowered by anxiety and awkwardness; by the time my brothers and sister came to the water, I had mostly dealt with those insecurities so that I was able to focus on the grace.)
Adult baptism reminds us that God can make all things new, however old or broken they may seem. It’s beautiful, too, to see mature adults embrace the faith with their developed rational faculties. Converts certainly have a role to play within the Church.
At the same time, there’s something uniquely beautiful about the baptism of a baby. In a sense all neophytes are infants before God, but it’s easier to grasp this when the baptized is in fact an infant, helpless and exposed before his Creator.
Babies help us appreciate the beauty of baptism, because these little bundles of new life are at the same time entirely “useless” and enormously precious. They can make no practical contribution to the household or parish community. They exhibit no discernable talents, virtues or admirable behaviors of any kind.
Nevertheless, we can hardly lay eyes on them without sensing their enormous worth. It seems like a miracle that a human soul can be enfleshed in this way. It is a miracle.
God likes fleshy beings with precious, rational souls. He wants to shower graces on such beings, not because we’ve earned such blessings, but because we can receive them, and it pleases him when we do. Some sacraments (such as matrimony or holy orders) serve not only as channels of heavenly grace, but also as rites of passage that mark a noteworthy transformation in the recipient’s earthly life here below.
Baptism is not like this, at least in the case of the infant. But the transformation this first-of-all sacraments effects in the soul has incalculable worth as truly the greatest gift God could give to mankind.
It’s pleasant to recall that each one of us was once a precious little person, just like my recently baptized son. God saw our worth then, and unlike human beings, he never really loses sight of that tremendous, intrinsic worth.
Every time we witness a baptism, we should be reminded of this fundamental Christian truth: God wants us and has taken some pains to make us into the sort of creatures that can be close to him.
We could spend our whole lives trying to honor the remarkable gift that he bestowed on most of us in infancy. This, indeed, is what Christian living really involves.
Rachel Lu, a moral philosopher, wife, and mother of five, writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.