by Fr. John Hainsworth
About What Happens to the Child in Baptism
IS BAPTISM JUST A SIGN?
Everything I have said assumes that baptism is more than just an outward expression of an inward acceptance of Christ. Of course, baptism is an outward expression in that physical hands are laid on a physical person and that the rites of baptism are tangible, visible, and physical. But the Orthodox embrace completely the Incarnation of Christ. For us, Christ’s body was not just an outward expression. Christ’s physical body was not an incidental part of His saving Incarnation. His body was indivisibly part of His whole person. So important is the body to God that the Christian promise is that we will be raised with our bodies.
Baptism effects a change in one’s status with God. It is more than a mere sign. The views held by most Christians about marriage provide a useful comparison. Few Christians would say that a marriage ceremony is merely a “sign.” A change clearly occurs. The man and the woman are separate before the ceremony, but they are “one flesh” after. This is a profound change, one which is effected by God through the ceremony itself.
Baptism is no different. The rite of baptism has always been understood as a baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, an entrance into the saving covenant, an enrollment in the Lamb’s book of life, a union with the whole people of God, and the giving of a new citizenship in the Kingdom not of this world. Clearly, this is more than just a formality.
WHAT HAPPENS TO A CHILD WHEN HE OR SHE IS BAPTIZED?
First of all, children are baptized into a story. Christians are the people of a story. The Lord did not appear from nowhere with a message and language of His own inven-tion. He came as the fulfillment of a promise made in the beginning to Abraham, in conformity to the prophecies concerning Him. The subsequent promises and prophecies, the peoples and the sins, the punishments and the mercies, these are our story.
It is the story of Christ, and it is the duty and joy of every Christian to know and teach this story. When children are baptized into this narrative, they become part of it. The stories of the patriarchs, the judges, the kings, the prophets, the apostles, the saints who followed them, and of Christ Himself, become their stories. This is clear in Exodus, when Moses and the Israelites are commanded to tell through a ritual re-enactment, the Passover Supper, the story of God’s glorious and nation-making act in Egypt. Children are commanded to be part of the ritual, because this story is their birthright.
The same is true of the fulfilled Passover of Christ, when the Lord again commanded us to “remember” what He accomplished for us on the Cross through the ritual remembrance of the Liturgy. We tell the story of God and His people because we are His people. And when we preach—as Peter did, as Stephen did, as Paul did—we preach our story. Our children are raised in this story, and by virtue of baptism this story becomes their own.
Second, children are baptized into a people. From the beginning God’s covenant was made with a people, not with a person. The promise to Abraham was made to all nations, the covenant with Moses was made with the whole of Israel, and the New Covenant of Christ was made with the New Israel, the Church of God. We are a people called out of the nations, called out of the world, and through baptism we come to belong to a people who belong to God. We are made citizens of Heaven. We join a heavenly ethnicity. My daughters, through baptism, belong to this people more than they belong to Canada, their country of birth.
We have our Kingdom culture of daily prayer, regular fasting, festal cycles, and biblical storytelling. We have oaths of allegiance in the form of the Creed. We have our national anthems in the hymns we sing. We have our national heroes in the saints and church fathers and mothers. Our king is God. This sounds cute to the modern ear, but it is true. And it is deeply Orthodox and fundamentally biblical, so much so that this alternative nationalism was the basis for the early Roman persecution of Christians.
Third, a child is baptized into life in Christ.
“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus,” says St. Paul, “were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3–4)
This newness of life is what we all participate in through baptism, adult and child alike. Certainly children participate differently than adults, but no less authentically. Learning to pray, to read the Bible, to understand their inheritance, to walk in the way of the Lord, eating and drinking of the Eucharist, being trained in righteousness—this is as much walking in newness of life as anything in the spiritual life, and sometimes children are more engaged in these activities than adults in their church. And because they have been baptized into life in Christ they also receive the benefits of that life—the Grace, the forgiveness, the Fatherhood of God, the nourishment of the Body and Blood of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. The difference of twenty years and the ability to pay bills and stay up late does not make an adult more needful of these things than children, or more worthy of them. Children become full participants in Christ, as He ordained them to be and indeed as He became incarnate for them to be.
This means as well that they are baptized into a promise. If they are buried with Christ in baptism, they will be raised with Him as well. They are raised with the promise of eternal life, with the expectation of the Resurrection. We do not hang this promise in front of them like a carrot (or a lollipop) to lead them to some future acceptance of Christ. By virtue of baptism, they participate in this promise now.
They do so because they already experience life in Christ.
Indeed, they grow up at His very knee.
Fr. John Hainsworth is pastor of All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Mission of Victoria, British Columbia. Fr. John converted to Orthodoxy in 1992. He graduated from St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2002 with a Master’s degree in Divinity. He is a popular retreat leader, the author of several articles in AGAIN Magazine, and hard at work on multiple book manuscripts.