I died at the tender age of four. I stood at the front of the sanctuary, the first of my sisters in line next to my parents, all of us dressed in our Sunday best. As much as our parents had prepared us the night before, I felt nervous and embarrassed to be at the center of attention.
As good presbyterians do, the pastor dipped his hand in the baptismal font and then placed his hand on my head. The water dripped gently down onto my eyelashes, my cheeks. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
No one told us then that with those words, with the water poured on my carefully brushed brown hair, I was dead.
The Western church speaks the language of victory. The resurrection triumph, the promises of Jesus to be present and powerful, Scripture’s awe-inspiring miracles all fill our sermons and memory verses and words of encouragement to each other. And well they should, for, as Paul reflected, without the resurrection we are a bunch of deluded, hopeless people.
Yet our celebration all too often eclipses that other reality: death. We, eager to participation in the resurrection of Jesus, forget that the only way to get there is through also participating in his death. We may have crosses on our church buildings and in our sanctuaries, but only Jesus’ passion comes to mind when we see them. Our own lives are curiously removed from the story, as it becomes something simply done on our behalf.
The imagery of baptism, however, confronts the ease with which we keep death at arms’ length. In the imagery of baptism, Christ’s death is participatory. In the letter to the Romans, Paul asks, almost in disbelief, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the death sentence to our sin nature, “the old self,” as Paul calls it throughout his letters.
Believers in the early church had this imagery clearly set before them in word and deed. Baptismal fonts were often in the shape of a cross, or even a tomb. In the fourth century, the Easter season became the most popular time for baptisms, and bishops used the paschal symbols of death and rebirth in their sermons. One early church theologian, Cyril of Jerusalem, describes the act of going down into the waters of baptism as being buried in the waters, just as Christ was buried in the grave. Only by descent into death can we be raised to life.
I don’t often think about how all of me went to the grave with that handful of water scooped on my head. Into the grave went my dreams and desires, my will and my independence — and they have been trying to escape ever since.
To my dismay, I find myself diving through that watery grave to dredge up my old self, clinging to those selfish desires and comforts, those yearnings after things that are empty and destructive. Some days I can feel the weight of my old self hanging around my neck, smell its death-stench. Yet it is not an easy thing to disentangle myself from its grasp and throw it once more under the waters of baptism.
For that, I need one who intimately knows the struggle against sin and death, one who has not only passed through the waters of baptism but has endured the cross and grave as well. Only in union with him, a union proclaimed in my baptism, will I find the strength to leave my old self buried in the waters.