For some parents, there's an additional step to proudly watch as children grow older: baptism. That's what happened in our family. Last Sunday, my teenage daughter made a public commitment of her faith by being baptized.
When she went under the water -- our church practises immersion -- I felt my eyes well up with tears. Like other religious parents, we hope and pray that our children will follow in our faith. Through her baptism, our daughter was publicly proclaiming that she believed in God not because that's what her parents want her to do, but because of her own faith in Jesus. By being baptized, she proclaimed that she had made her faith her own.
By being baptized, she also participated in one of the most important rituals of the church. The practice goes back more than 2,000 years, right back to the baptism of Christ himself, and was widely practised by the early Christians. It is seen as a symbol of spiritual cleansing, of death to an old way of life, resurrection to new life, a public confession of faith and also as a way of identifying with the body of Christ -- the church.
Despite its importance, the New Testament actually says very little about how to do it. Archeological evidence suggests that the early Christians practised immersion, but there are also indications that they poured or sprinkled water on the head of baptismal candidates.
The New Testament is also silent on the matter of infant baptism, neither forbidding nor condoning it. There is also evidence that the ancient church baptized children; by the fifth century, it was an accepted practice.
During the Protestant Reformation, the meaning and mode of baptism became a contentious and divisive issue. Among those who rejected the practice of infant baptism were the Anabaptists; their name, which was given to them by their detractors, literally means re-baptizers. Along with a preference for adult baptism, they rejected any state interference in religion and were unwilling to go to war -- highly seditious positions to take in the 16th century.
As a result, thousands were killed by authorities in various countries throughout Europe. One especially diabolical method of execution was drowning; their persecutors used the perverse logic that if they wanted water, they would be happy to give them lots of it.
One group that traces its roots back to those early Anabaptists are the Mennonites. Like many other Protestant denominations today, they still practise adult, or believer's, baptism. Some, like my church, prefer immersion, while others pour.
Baptism by immersion can look a bit strange to those who aren't familiar with it. But, as author and theologian Frederick Buechner notes in his book, Wishful Thinking: "Baptism consists of getting dunked or sprinkled. Which technique is used matters about as much as whether you pray kneeling or standing on your head. Dunking is a better symbol, however. Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human. Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful. You can breathe again."
Adds writer Anne Lamott in her book, Traveling Mercies: "Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under," she writes. "But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that's a little sloppy because at the same time it's also holy, and absurd. It's about surrender, giving in to all those things we can't control; it's a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched."
There's nothing magic about baptism. Faith doesn't become easier or life less tough because you are baptized. It is just one step among many in the life of faith for those who choose to do it.
But yet, something changes. Because of my daughter's baptism, the world looks different today than it did last week -- both for her, and for us.