On Sunday, four people climbed the ladder into the tiny plastic six-foot wide tank set up for our sacred purposes at the school gym. Standing in waist-deep warm water, our pastor stood with an arm around each person in turn: tell us your story, he said. And they did.
Someone had typed up a few pages to read aloud, another two spoke from the heart, another had written out her story long-hand onto lined papers that she dropped one after another onto the gym floor as she finished another page, a fluttering of falling, stained with tears.
And every time after they had finished speaking their truth and their journey, they wept at the ways that Jesus had met him in their darkness, at how he had given them friends and community to walk alongside of them, at how even the most lost moments or people of their lives had been restored.
They cried and we cried right along with them: we know, we know, we know, our hearts sang. It was that way for us, too. We remember.
We were dead and now we are alive.
Our pastor asked them a few of the important questions, just to make it official perhaps. Marriages require certain words in the church tradition, baptism is another sort of wedding so we need to hear you say it out loud: Yes, I profess Jesus Christ as my Saviour and I will spend my days following him wherever he leads me.
And into their lives and over their lives, the spoken words: In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, I baptize you. A gentle hand at your back, your eyes screwed shut, and you sink backwards in trust, here it all goes. Then with the hand of your pastor or your friends, sometimes both, at your back your face breaks the surface of the water and you breathe in new life.
Watching ordinary people sink into an ordinary plastic tub in an ordinary school gym in an ordinary small city in western Canada is one of the most extraordinary and sacred moments of my life.
Witness it: dying to the old life, raised in the newness of life. What once was dead, now lives. What once was has passed away and the new creation has come.
I stood on my feet and howled with praise. We all clapped and cheered, this is a moment for celebration! We cry and we clasp our hands over our hearts, our smiles are impossible to wipe off. Look! It still happens! Miracles! Imperfect, a bit of a mess, stumbling and so regular but here we are transcendent.
I don’t even know entirely what I believe or think actually happens when we’re baptized. I don’t think it’s required to be part of the family of God at all yet it’s beautiful and prophetic and holy. I don’t think this act is a simple metaphor or even a public declaration or a personal decision but I don’t think it’s a moment of salvation either. I think it’s a foretaste of one thing and a throw-back to another and a miracle besides. An act of obedience and a declaration, absolutely, a joining to a community, and a glimpse of resurrection all at once.
Really, what I’m saying is that I have no systematic theological step-by-step delineation about baptism but I know I love the very mystery of it, the resurrection of it, the belonging of it, and yes, wait for it, the power of it. The sheer gob smacking dead-raising power of God, uprooting and planting together. The very air is charged with the the Spirit, snapping and electrifying, separating and renewing.
Baptism has always been the sacrament that I hold most gingerly, the one I understand too little and yet love most ferociously. These days there is a lot reclaiming of Eucharist or Communion for which I’m glad. But the sopping wet part of me still clings to baptism as my sacrament of transformation, it’s my own place of both mystery and equality, of welcome and embrace. I feel most like the mystic I might have been a thousand years ago at those moments of bearing witness to baptism.
Let me draw close and put my hands on you, let me pray for you quietly even if you never know. Today you saved something in us all. We remembered that it’s real – it’s all real – today. The Spirit met us here at a metaphorical River Jordan, this is the border land, the place of transition.
Whenever I feel restless about Church – both the universal Church and my own local church – and most particularly my place in her, whenever I feel wander-y and misfit-ish and even just plain tired of trying, when I wonder why even bother, I remember these exact moments. From the outside, it’s a rather stripped down version of a baptism perhaps but still a thin place between earth and heaven, rich in depth and marked as holy ground. I remember my own baptism and the power of it. Sinking and rising, metaphors for all.
And this life we live locks back into place again: we were dead and now we’re alive. We’re climbing a ladder while people cheer, we’re being wrapped in worn-out bath towels and we’re weeping with the biggest smile on our faces we’ve ever worn, sopping wet and alive as birth.
Photo courtesy of Lightstock, used with permission