Baptism and (In)dignity

I baptized the recently born son of parishioners today and, because they were game for it, the baptism was performed by stripping the little guy down, sitting him in the font (filled with warm water), and pouring a generous amount of water over him. He was then wrapped up in a towel while I anointed him with chrism, and then wrestled into his white garment while the assembly sang a song.

The whole thing was terribly undignified.

It was undignified because there is nothing dignified about having dirt scrubbed off you.

It was undignified because these is nothing dignified about dying.

It was undignified because there is nothing dignified about being born.

But once this new Christian was clothed in his resplendent white garment, I was forcibly struck, in a way I had never been before, by the words of the rite:

See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.

The impossibility of keeping our dignity when undergoing the rite of dying and rising with Christ makes the dignity bestowed on us in the new creation all the more vivid, as well as the seriousness with which we should guard that dignity.

In light of recent national discussions of race and history, Christians should remember that in our baptism we have lost our dignity as the world counts dignity. We have been stripped of our worldly status, whether of race or wealth or social position, and given a new status, a new dignity, as God’s adopted children. But the task of preserving that new dignity as brothers and sisters of Christ remains. It is all too tempting to retrieve the worldly status that has been left behind in the waters of baptism, to claim the privilege that the world has bestowed on us, and so lose the privilege that is ours as God’s adopted children. It is by refusing any dignity except that which is ours as a child of God that we will bring that dignity unstained before the just and terrible throne of God.

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12 comments

  1. An excellent reflection Deacon Fritz! It shows us that when we celebrate the sacraments in their fullness, we can be lead to a reality that we would not necessarily expect.

    In my parish of St. Elias, Brampton, Ontario, this is how all of our baptisms are celebrated.

    Part of the indignity of baptism comes from the old Adam who must try to maintain a false persona in a fallen world, a world that tries to maintain itself as an end in itself. To maintain his “dignity”, the old Adam is clothed in the vices and the vices are accepted as natural and normal: this is who I am is the cry of the fallen world. But all of this is false in the light of Christ who is the human being that every human being should be. Christ was naked in his baptism on the cross and it is Christ that we must imitate and by theois become.

    Baptism requires the renunciation of Satan and all his values (vices), an adherence to Christ and all his values (virtues), and then the candidate is stripped, so the candidate can enter the font naked, as was Adam before the fall, as was Christ on the cross, for baptism is death and the font is a tomb, for baptism is life and the font is a womb. Baptism is where one renounces the false identity of the old Adam by being stripped of it and receives by grace the new identity of Christ: “for it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Baptism is the beginning of where “all shall be all in Christ.” It opens up the eschaton and those newly clothed in Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit celebrate the Supper of the Lamb and those who are Christ receive the Body and Blood of Christ to become the Body and Blood of Christ to lead this fallen world into the kingdom.

  2. Regarding: “… sitting him in the font (filled with warm water), and pouring a generous amount of water over him.”
    – Wonderful idea, if the ceremony includes only one child. Otherwise, for more than one child at a ceremony a team needs to be at the ready to decant the water from one baptism, clean the font, and then replenish the water for baptism of the next child. Perhaps such a team will be the god parents.
    – One can imagine that parents of the infants and toddlers would want these very young persons to wear a diaper in the case they need to evacuate or void during the rite.

    1. Fair point about multiple baptism. On the diaper question, we took it off right before the baby went into the water and it was back on within four minutes. And I suspect most parents would not get too upset about a little poop or pee getting in the water. After all, babies don’t wear diapers when they’re getting a bath, and that takes quite a bit longer than a baptism.

    2. At all the parishes I’ve worked, we’ve done full immersion of fully-naked infants in groups for years. Usually 6-8 at a time, 4 Masses per weekend. We always go from oldest to youngest, just in case an accident happens. Never has.
      Of course, it helps our fonts are modern fonts, where you could go to the basement and drain it in a few minutes, and refill it an hour, if necessary.
      In short: have a backup plan, but switching water between baptisms isn’t necessary.

  3. I appreciate your comments about the words making more sense with an immersion. We baptize fully clothed adults at the Easter Vigil so if parents ask for a clothed child, the precedent has been set. Note that a child with an immersed disposable diaper is 6-7 pounds heavier.

    Most priests that I have assisted that have done an immersion Baptsim for the first time, will say “it now makes more sense.” When a priest also stands in the Baptismal Font (walking in from the Church side) greets the one to be Baptized (who walks in from the opposite side), it becomes a prayer experience that catches a deep wave.

  4. Today, I witnessed a baptism to which my wife of many years, an Ethiopian Catholic was the Godmother. In their tradition, only one godparent serves, if a girl; a woman; a boy would then be a man. A tradition from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of long that has carried over with permission of the local ordinary. The Ritual does not change though immersion is not asked of. Hearing us, the lay faithful renew our baptismal promises brought tears to this “cradle” Catholic.

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