Baptism in The Christian Community

2. Godparents and their task. Looking for godparents

The title godfather’ or godmother’ shows that this relationship is of a spiritual rather than an earthly nature. We can look upon the two godparents as spiritual companions, as ‘guardian angels’ on earth. Although this kind of spiritual connection does not exclude blood relations from becoming godparents, that would be a relationship based more on genetic ties than a spiritual bond forged in freedom. We expect relatives to show an interest in the children and their develoQ ment. Thus by choosing godparents from within the family circle we do not add anyone essential to the circle of people surrounding the child.

In coming to a decision the first aspect to be considered is the spiritual bond between the child and the godparents. Since we do not really know the little child yet, the choice very often rests on subtle observations and intuitions. Good possibilities for godparent hood exist where there is a warm friendship with the parents. On the other hand the bond with the child should not depend exclusively on such a tie. If the Iparents feel unable to make a choice, or if they do not know anyone who could take on this task, it is possible for the priest to recommend someone else from the community. Many a fruitful godparenthood has come about in this way.

The directions given to godparents during the baptism are short and to the point. It is their task to lead the soul of the child in the community of the Christ Jesus. This may seem to contradict what was said in the first chapter, that baptism does not require membership of the Church. The apparent discrepancy is resolved when we look at the Christian Church in a much wider sense. In The Christian Community this extension is expressed in its Creed. There it is affirmed that ‘communities whose members feel the Christ within themselves may feel united in a Church to which all belong who are aware of the health-bringing power of the Christ.’ It is into this extended Church that the child is introduced when baptized. We may assume that the godparents would want to be members of this community of Christ and would lead in such a way that the child could, as an adult, choose whether or not to become an active member of The Christian Community.

It is good when the godparents periodically think about ‘their’ child, or remember him in their prayers, while the parents and child can think about the godparents on going to sleep. In this manner, the spiritual bond initiated at baptism can be kept up in an intimate but practical and religious way. The value of such a bond, both for those concerned and for the whole fabric of the future community of mankind, is easily underestimated. Even in practical matters about upbringing (for instance, choice of school, toys, illnesses) or decisive events in the life of the child, the godparents may be able to help. The assistance they can perhaps offer is made easier by their strong connection with the child on the one hand, and by their greater objectivity on the other. Parents quite often fail to see certain qualities in their own child or see them incorrectly through lack of perspective; they are too close to him.

When does the task of godparents end?’ is a question frequently asked. How seriously the task is taken and how long it is truly held depends on the degree to which the godparents work from their inward power of sacrifice. Seen in this light, the task can be taken much more seriously and realized as greater than any outward authority could impose. Just as the work of parents and educators does not abruptly end but goes through a gradual metamorphosis, so does the godparents’ task continuously change. Their role will change radically when the child reaches fourteen, the age of confirmation in The Christian Community. If a close relationship has been formed, the godparents can be of great help when the child suffers the loneliness and inner struggles of puberty. In short, the task of the godparents will continually change, but never really ends even though outwardly it may seem to. Here again we can think of the guardian angel of man, whose task likewise does not end although he leaves the young person more and more free as he grows into independence.

The spiritual ties established at Baptism and confirmed in daily life can be building stones for a future community in the spirit, when old community forms will have ended.

4. The Form of the Service and the Substances Used

The worlds of spirit and of matter encompassed in the sacrament are vast. The bridge that is created between the heavenly heights and the individual being on earth spans a great divide. Nevertheless, this vastness and greatness is concentrated to such an extent that this sevenfold sacrament takes about fifteen minutes. Just as the soul of a human being incarnates into the body of a tiny baby, so also a spiritual reality of immense magnitude is concentrated and embodied within the child.

Now we may ask why material substances, water, salt and ash, are used at all. Is matter not misplaced in such a holy sacramental occasion? Especially as these are common substances and easily obtained. In this respect they are not at all ‘precious’. But when we view birth as a bringing together of the spirit of man with the physical body which has sprung from the mother’s womb, we can understand how baptism, which consecrates this birth, should also unite spirit with matter. In this sense other sacraments where substances are used also resemble a baptism. With birth, man’s spirit is plunged into the physical world; a painful process, for the immortal spirit is confronted with mortal matter and even has to be immersed in it.

The word incarnation’ means embodiment, becoming flesh. Concerning his own embodiment and baptism Jesus said, ‘I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!’ (Luke 12:49f). The idea of a dramatic confrontation between spirit and earthly matter at every incarnation was subscribed to by Buddha as well, hence his saying, ‘All birth is suffering’.

For this reason it is often thought that baptism should reject the physical earth and be an exclusively ‘spiritual’ occasion, where the spirit in man can recognize the spiritual world again. However, the guidance that baptism affords does not, in the first instance, come from looking back to the ‘lost paradise’ from which we came. The sacrament rather lends perspective to the future and gives meaning to the earthly life just begun. This is made possible through use of the consecrated substances. Through his life and passion, death and Resurrection, Christ united himself with the earth to such a degree that it has become possible to raise matter from the depths and use it in a sacramental act, so that the power of resurrection can unite with it. These substances have become more than just dead matter, they are permeated, impregnated, baptized with the strength of the eternal life that overcomes death.

When the child is brought into contact with them, both materially and figuratively. he may experience that not only does the earth consist of dead matter, but also contains living, Christ-filled substance which makes it a richer and more worthwhile place. To begin earthly life with this experience is assuredly more comforting than to yearn for the past ‘lost paradise’. Baptism can give a child strength to begin life on earth with courage and joy.

As an extensive study of the substances would be too lengthy here, suffice it to mention several points of view. Water has for many centuries been the most important, if not the only baptismal substance. It is the ‘source of life’ of the earth. Wherever there is water life springs up, wherever organic life exists there is water. A classic and fitting example is the rich vegetation on the banks of the River Jordan which forms a narrow ribbon in the otherwise barren Judean Desert. The human body, particularly that of the young child, consists for the most part of water. Water is a substance that is in the first instance always moving, in streams and rivers, in ocean currents and the tides. Also in the vertical plane there is continuous movement; in the living and life-giving cycle of evaporation, cloud formation and precipitation.

Just as water represents movement, life and growth, so with salt a totally different, in many respects an opposite picture develops. Both the concrete cubic structure and the crystalline character of salt bring to mind the earthly forces of form. In one extreme salt represents death–think of the salt deserts near the Dead Sea. But, in combination with the living water, it is the most abundant substance on earth in the oceans and seas. Salt has an important function in nutrition and in preservation of food. Salt really represents the preserving element. Just as thinking and willing are opposite capacities in man, so are the two common substances on earth, water and salt, in many respects polar to each other. It is significant that in the Baptism the water is placed on the forehead and the salt on the chin; the places corresponding to thinking and willing. What comes to expression through this is that our often rigid thinking needs to become mobile and enlivened and our life of will, often lacking in self-control, needs structure and form.

With the ash which is placed on the child’s chest, a completely new element is brought into the picture, namely that of fire. Fire occurs when something is offered up. This can happen destructively, or take form as the sacred fire of enthusiasm or of love. This sacrifice is clearly expressed in the mythology of the phoenix, the bird that rises out of the flames more beautiful and stronger than before. This image, which comes to us from pre-Christian times, seems to point to and prepare us for the greatest deed of sacrifice, the death on Golgotha undergone by the Christ. With this deed, so great a power of sacrifice was united with the fire of love that new life can arise from it.

With this background it makes sense that in the Baptism the ash is placed in the sign of the cross on the chest of the child; the sign of the deed of sacrifice on Golgotha is brought into connection with the place where our heart beats, where the fire of love and idealism can burn, but also where powers of sacrifice must arise for ideals to be realized.

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