[This month Patheos hosts a fascinating conversation on life’s rites of passage. Here’s my contribution to it.]
The sun shines. The lake glimmers. This summer, like summers past, an adult kind of faith will emerge from the waters. Personal faith, wet and fresh. To me, the Christian practice of baptism assumes a special resonance as the rite of passage into an adult kind of faith.
In our context in Rome, Italy, adult baptism has a counter-cultural ring. Most people here are baptized when they are infants. They are born into the faith, a family faith that incorporates them also into the faith of a large segment of society. Each person’s faith is of course expected to mature through catechism and confirmation. Yet by baptizing infants, the sacrament works largely as a rite of passage into family, into society, into life.
Things change when a forty-year-old emerges from the waters. It’s personal. It’s confessional. It’s sensitive and awkward, in a beautiful sense. To me, at least, it feels different than infant baptism: it’s a rite of passage that emerges from that person’s own volition. He or she owns the faith. “I believe,” he says. “I embrace this God and all the consequences of this path for myself.” Actually, each person articulates her story and confession of faith with remarkable eloquence. Baptism becomes an act that ushers that person to deliberate, adult faith — a rite of passage into the faith itself.
Adult faith is, of course, a product of more than a rite of passage. It blossoms also when people are encouraged to read the Bible and think by themselves, for example. But in my experience baptizing people as adults makes a large difference. It crystallizes something that can feel abstract into a moment embedded in nature and surrounded by the community. It grants a visible, public starting point for the journey of faith.
Jesus himself, when talking about being born again, recognized how the experience of conversion needs pictures. It can be airy and enigmatic; it’s hard to get a handle on it. Sometimes it feels like it’s coming from nowhere, like the wind that rustles a pile of paper.Precisely, implies Jesus. The experience of faith can startle like a breeze’s unexpected touch:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8 TNIV)
That’s how it feels when someone comes to know God: like the wind you can’t see or explain but which still touches you. Even Jesus has to reach for metaphors: to awake to God is like being born, it’s like the wind, it’s like dying and rising again. We need a visual for that: it’s like submerging the old self in the waters and rising anew to a life with Christ.
At our community, we make it a point to take this visual aspect seriously. Many churches hold baptisms indoors using a tube or baptistery. We prefer to embed it in early summer splendor. We drive to a lake outside of Rome every June. We sing songs, each person shares her story, and is baptized in the lake. Then we celebrate with a picnic — and popping champagne bottles — that lasts until late in the afternoon.
Part of me feels like downplaying this rite of passage. I can begin to think all that matters is the day-to-day journey. Or I remember that the outer ritual is meaningless without inner faith. But every year those who will get baptized remind me of the importance of the rite of passage too. Many tell of how their faith journey started one year before, precisely when they came for the first time for a friend’s baptism. To watch an adult get baptized was so vivid, so touching, that they started to wonder about their own lives too, and lo and behold, one year later here they are being baptized. Each generation transmits that image of faith to the next. Each generation shows to the next what an adult path of faith can look like.
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