As a hospital chaplain, a colleague of mine recently shared the story of her experience administering the rite of baptism for a baby on the NICU, per the request of the family, prior to a planned terminal extubation. She discussed the struggle of holding the sacred joy of baptism as a welcome into the Christian fold with the grim reality that this child would soon die. The opportunity of new life to be lived that is often associated with baptism would not be for this child. Baptism, in this case, was a step toward death, not life. It was nearly simultaneously a welcoming into a bodily life and spiritual afterlife in relationship with Christ.
For me hearing of this experience, I could not help but to think of the grief that should be associated with baptism, but is often overlooked in favor of the joy and opportunity it brings.
For those who administer a “believer’s baptism,” the reality is that in order for baptism to fully take place, there is a death to an old life that then yields a new one. Death must take place for the opportunity of new life to begin.
So it is with Christ’s death and resurrection. To have a risen Christ, there must first be a dead Christ. There must be mourning before morning. In the dark of night we cry out for an answer—for an opportunity—but it has not yet come. Nor can we have the foresight of new life. We exist briefly in a moment of despair, in the grief of a murdered Savior.
If we forget that Christ fully died, we understate the power of the resurrected Christ. If we forget the grief of Christ’s followers upon his death, we understate the eternal implications this death holds.
The Baptist church should—no, must—remember this aspect of baptism. The institution of the elements of communion often reflects this, as many pastors will say, “On the night Christ was betrayed…” Yet, we do not adequately recall the death of Christ in our baptisms. We recall the related act of Christ’s baptism, but fail to acknowledge the literal death of Christ that is embedded in our act of a public profession of faith that Christ died, resurrected, and will come again.
In an immersion tradition, we can’t hold new believers under water for too long—for obvious reasons—but in that brief moment in which a believer is held under water, unable to hear, see, or breathe, there lies an eternity of death and despair, represented by Christ lying in the tomb for three days.
To not rush to the hope and opportunity of new life brought about by baptism is to rest fully in the meaning of the ritual so vital to our Baptist faith. The grief of baptism acknowledges that Christ did in fact die. Too often we hide this act of death in our language behind the victory it later brings: “Christ has died and resurrected” or “Christ has died; Christ has resurrected.” I suggest we remember fully what Christ has done: “Christ has died. Christ has resurrected.”
In that act of a full death and full resurrection rests the assurance that Christ will fully come again.