Godtalk: What Baptism Means

POST BY PKnott

Detail from a 19th-century carved mother-of-pearl shell which is used in baptisms.
Baptismal shell by Lawrence Lew OP at flickr.com

In the baptised we expect to see both an openness to human need and a corresponding openness to the Holy Spirit, a constant recovering, re-enacting of the Father’s embrace of Jesus in the Holy Spirit. The baptised person is not only in the middle of human suffering and muddle but in the middle of the love and delight of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That surely is one of the extraordinary mysteries of being Christian.

We are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory: in the middle of the heart of God, the joy of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering, sin and pain. And because Jesus has taken his stand right in the middle of these two realities, that is where we take ours. As he says, ‘Where I am, there will my servant be also.’  (John 12.26)

Growing out of that, the prayer of baptised people is going to be a prayer that is always moving in the depths, sometimes invisibly – a prayer that comes from places deeper than we can really understand. St Paul says just this in his letter to the Romans: ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness… and intercedes with sighs too deep for words.’ (Rom 8.26)

The prayer of baptised people is never just rattling off the words at surface level. Our prayer comes from a place deeper than we can penetrate with our minds or even our feelings. Prayer in the baptised community surges up from the depths of God’s own life. Or, to change the metaphor, we might say that we are carried along on a tide deeper than ourselves, welling up from God’s depths and the world’s.

The prayer of the baptised is a growing and moving into the prayer of Jesus himself and therefore it is a prayer that may be difficult and mysterious. It will not always be cheerful and clear, it may not always feel as though it’s going to be answered. Christians do not pray to get what they ask for in any simple sense - you may have noticed that this can’t be taken for granted! Rather, Christians pray because they have to, because the Spirit is surging up inside them.

Prayer in other words, is more like sneezing – there comes a point where you can’t not do it.  But there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it can feel dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.

Prayer is not about feeling good. It’s not about results, or about being pleased with oneself; it is just what God does in us when we are close to Jesus. And that of course, means that the path of the baptised person is a dangerous one. Perhaps baptism ought to have some health warning attached to it; ‘If you take this step, if you go into these depths, it will be life-giving, but also dangerous.’ Jesus disciples discovered that as we see in the Gospels and gone on discovering it ever since. Like the saints before us we tread a dangerous path – which is at the same time the path to life in its fullness. 

Christian baptism restores a human identity that has been forgotten or overlaid.  It takes us to where Christ Jesus is. It takes us therefore into closer neighbourhood with a dark and fallen world, and it takes us into closer neighbourhood with others invited there. 

The baptised life is characterised by solidarity with those in need, and sharing with all others who believe; and by a prayerfulness that keeps going, even when things look difficult and unpromising and unrewarding, simply because we can’t stop the urge to pray. Something keeps coming alive in us, never mind the results.

Peter Knott SJ

Adapted from Being Christian by Rowan Williams