Godtalk: The Challenge of Baptism


A Child's Baptism on Flickr by Joe Green

Baptism  means being where Jesus is.  It places us in the place of Jesus.  The New Testament makes it clear that one of the most important ways in which this is expressed is through the fact that we pray the prayer of Jesus as we stand in the place of Jesus.  That is, in the Holy Spirit we say, ‘Abba, Father’. 

Yet where Jesus is, is in itself a many-layered notion.  Jesus is in the presence of God the Father and so when we stand where Jesus is we too are in that presence and we learn his language of his relation to God the Father. 

But the incarnate Jesus is also in the presence of the chaos and the suffering of the world – a world he has entered to transform.  The descent of Jesus into the baptismal water of Jordan can be seen as a descent into the chaos, into the unformed reality that swirls around just below the surface of the ordinary world. 

Christ is simultaneously in the presence of the Father and in the presence of the sin, the formlessness, the shapelessness and dissolution, the dis-integrity of creation.  He is in the heart of both realities, simultaneously.      And this suggests that when we as baptised persons come to be in the presence of Jesus, that some dual proximity is what we have to get used to. 

We are in the presence of God the Father indeed, and pray the prayer that the Spirit enables: Abba, Father.  But we are also in proximity to the world into which Jesus descended; in proximity to the chaos and the formlessness of fallen creation.

It is this two-sided dimension of baptism that stops the baptismal identity simply being static or exclusive, religious in the worst  sense.  It means that we can only be confident of our proximity to God the Father in Jesus if we’re also alert and awake to the proximity of chaos. 

Our baptismal solidarity with Christ Jesus means that we’re in solidarity with an unlimited variety of human experience that relates to the darkness and
the chaos into which Jesus descends in his incarnation.       We are in the presence of
a darkness inside and outside the Church, inside and outside our own hearts, in the heart of what sin means. 

So the identity of the baptised is not first and foremost a matter of some exclusive relationship to God that keeps us safe, as opposed to the rest of the vulnerable and unlucky world.  It is at one and the same time living both in the presence of the Father and in the presence of darkness. 

That is why we speak of being baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ, not simply baptised as a mark of our affinity or alignment with Jesus in a general way, not baptised as an external sign that we more or less agree with what Jesus says. 

Our baptism is a stepping-into Jesus’ place with all that that entails.  And it means that Christian baptismal identity is both a depth of human experience that brings us into at least the potential of intense, transfiguring love, the Trinitarian love in which Jesus himself lives, and a level of expectation, humility, penitence and hope.

The experience of the baptised is not the experience of endings, but of repeated new beginnings.  We don’t simply acquire relationship with God the Father which then requires us to do nothing more.  On the contrary, to be baptised is to be constantly re-awakening our expectation, our penitence, our protest, our awareness that the chaos and darkness of the world is not what God wills; our awareness that we are colluding with that state of chaos which God does not will.  Our task as Christians is to continue what Christ did – transforming the world by the way we think, the way we speak, the way we live. 

So as baptised persons we look constantly into ourselves, rediscovering over and over again the hope that comes out of true repentance.  That. surely, is somewhere near the heart of what it means to be baptised. In slightly different terms we can say baptism is the beginning of a ‘baptismal narrative’, a story of discovering and rediscovering through failure and restoration, just what it is to live in the place where Jesus lives, present in his word, in the eucharist and in community.

Peter Knott SJ