In 2019, I had one of those landmark birthdays – the kind that has a nought on the end – and when my eldest sister came to stay with me later that year, we decided to commemorate the event by going for a trip down memory lane and visiting the house in which I was born – which is in Hayes, now part of Greater London. We moved from that particular house when I was four years old, and I can’t remember ever having gone back there since, so it was a very significant journey for me. I can certainly remember living there, although my memories are inevitably a bit hazy.
Anyway, we had a fascinating visit, and took a few photos outside the house, marvelling that the wall that my dad built in about 1958 was still standing! And then, on a whim, I suggested that we went to see the church in which I was baptised on 24th May 1959 – St Nicholas, Hayes – which was just down the road. So off we went.
When we arrived, we discovered that, by chance the church’s musicians were rehearsing, so the church was open and we were able to go inside. I have the faintest of faint memories of that particular church (which I probably last saw in 1963) – but I do remember its very striking modern architecture – it was very 1960s – and I also had a memory of some very modern bright blue stained glass – amazingly, I found the very window that I had remembered from the age of four. And I found myself profoundly moved to think that it was there, in that place, that my own journey of faith really began, all those years ago, with my own baptism. My parents could not have known it at the time, but in terms of my own life, it had a massive significance.
If you have ever wondered why in most mediaeval churches the baptismal font is at the back of the church, and usually situated by the door, it is because baptism is the sacrament of entry. It is about being welcomed in. It is about becoming part of something. I am certain that in the medieval St Bride’s, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, that would be where you would have found the font.
And for the first followers of Christ, two thousand years ago, baptism (which in those days of course meant primarily adult baptism) was a very big deal. In the early Church, baptisms traditionally took place on Easter Day and, as preparation for that momentous and life-changing event, those who were seeking baptism were required to undergo a forty-day period of prayer, fasting, and penitence in preparation for it. Which is the origin of the Church’s observation of the season of Lent. And in those early years, particularly when Christians were persecuted for their faith, the significance of undergoing baptism was massive.
Over time, the practice of the Church changed, and it became customary to baptise infants – in large part because in those days life was precarious, infant mortality rates were high, and there was many superstitious fears about the awful fate of those who died unbaptised.
But even though we have moved on from that particular mindset, I remain a staunch supporter of infant baptism. Because baptism is a gift. It is about the grace of God. It is about belonging – and it is a gift that parents can give to their children that can have all kinds of extraordinary and unexpected consequences.
The reason I say that is because that is precisely what happened to me. Despite having had very little interest in anything religious in my youth – I was not confirmed as a child, and I went to great lengths to avoid ever darkening the doors of a church – as a young adult I decided that I wanted to explore the Christian faith properly for the first time – if only to satisfy myself that there was nothing in it.
But the prospect of turning up to an unknown service in an unknown church felt very intimidating. Until suddenly the thought occurred to me, and I can remember it happening – ‘But hang on a minute – I am a baptised member of the Church of England – this is my church! I have a right to be part of its life!’ Though of course I had absolutely no idea where that fateful step would end up taking me!
But beyond that, Christian baptism, properly understood, is far more than just a rite of passage, or an entry permit. And to glimpse something of its true depths we need to turn to scripture.
All four Gospels describe very early on how John the Baptist was out in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of the promised Messiah, and calling people to a baptism of repentance, washing them free from their past sins. In other words, the baptism offered by John was about cleansing, and renewal and preparation of the new life that would be theirs in the coming Kingdom of God, which the coming Messiah would inaugurate. And it is John who recognises Jesus as the Christ, the promised one. And it is he who officially launches the ministry of Jesus, by baptising him.
But the baptism of Christ is quite unlike any other baptism that John has ever administered. Because, as we heard in our Gospel reading a moment ago, when John baptises Jesus, suddenly that sacramental act gains a significance that goes far beyond that of simply being washed clean of past sins in preparation for a new future. Because the Baptism of Christ marks the transition into that very future. It is a moment of revelation – the point at which the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, and a heavenly voice reveals his true identity: ‘Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.’ And it is also the point at which Jesus himself becomes the bearer of the Spirit; the one who is empowered to confer that Spirit on those who turn to him.
So from that point onwards, baptism in Christ’s name becomes a channel through which the power and the grace of God is actually communicated and conveyed – which is why it comes to be associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And because it is a rite of initiation into the new kingdom, it naturally became the hallmark of belonging to the people of God in the new Messianic era that has dawned with the coming of Christ.
And today it is that same amazing gift that is offered to those children who are brought to us for baptism, both here at St Bride’s and in churches across the world. As with all gifts, it will, of course, be entirely up to those children what they do with it – or when. But it is something that will be theirs for ever.
There is a very striking poem by Ann Lewin called simply ‘Baptism’ – which compares and contrasts what she describes as our first birth – that is our literal birth into this world – and our second birth – which is the new life we receive with Christ at our baptism.
Part of her poem runs like this:
All birth is dying,
A painful separation from the past.
Our first birth called us from
Security, to face the lifelong struggle to survive.
Our second, no less vigorously
Calls us to set out on our
Pilgrimage with Christ,
Finding in him, with all our
Fellow pilgrims, new insights
Into love, and truth and life.
A pilgrimage that daunts us
And excites us,
And will not let us rest till
We arrive. Our only certainty
God’s promise, ‘My love will hold you,
Do not be afraid.’