What is a baptism? What are the rules for visitors?
In the Christian church, a person’s baptism is like a membership induction ceremony. In some church denominations, the baptism takes place when a person is an infant and the parents sponsor the child’s participation. In other churches, an individual waits until he or she can make the independent decision to undertake the ceremony, with full consent and understanding. The child or adult being baptized may wear normal clothing or have a special white baptismal outfit. An older name for a baptism is “christening.”
The symbolism of a baptism. Baptism is an act that symbolizes God’s washing away of a person’s sins. Sins are the evil thoughts and actions that people commit. Most Christians believe that humans are naturally sinful and need to be washed clean by the grace of God. Grace is like a gift of understanding and forgiveness. The gift is believed to be undeserved but given anyway because God is more generous than people are. Because of the metaphor of washing, Christians use water in the ceremony of baptism. Reference to water is also connected to Noah’s Ark and the Old Testament flooding of the world.
Baptism by Pouring Water on Head
In the case of my grandson Nick, he was baptized at age 10 months by his Aunt Katy, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Most baptisms take place in a church, but Nick’s parents preferred to have a simple ceremony at the home of Nick’s paternal grandparents. About 15 of us witnessed the ceremony in their living room. Baptizing a young baby is easy because the child is not very active. Because Nick is old enough to have his own opinions, he wasn’t interested in staying quiet at the front of a crowd of people for special words and ceremony. He made lots of noise—which someone joked was the ceremony’s opening hymn—and by the end, he made it clear that he wanted to get down out of his parents’ arms and play.
Rev. Katy Hyman
The ceremony itself. The baptism usually takes about ten minutes and consists of these elements: words from the pastor or priest, a prayer, the mention of the child’s name, the commitment of the parents or sponsors to raise the child as a Christian, and the use of water with some words of blessing. In some churches, the pastor takes a small amount of water from a vessel and touches it to the head of the child. This is done three times, once each in the name of God, of Jesus the Son of God, and of the Holy Spirit. In other churches, water is poured over the tipped head of the individual from a cup or pitcher. (This can get messy indoors!) Baptismal water may be taken from a bowl held by an assistant or stored in a baptismal font.
Modern and Traditional Fonts for Baptismal Water
If you wish to participate in the prayers or other words spoken by the attendees, you may. However, if you are a non-Christian attending as a guest, you are welcome to simply watch and need not mimic any of the activities.
In history. In the days when Jesus lived and taught in the Middle East, people went outside to be baptized in lakes and rivers. The most famous baptisms in the Bible happened in the Jordan River. In such cases, people were immersed in the water—a kind of full-body cleansing of sins. Some modern churches, including the Baptist Church, prefer to use complete immersion even today. For that reason, they have small tanks or pools in the church sanctuary for this purpose. Some churches may still use the outdoor method of immersion baptism in a lake or river. Our grandson’s baptism contained special water taken from the Jordan River, carried home in a bottle by a great-aunt who had visited there.
Indoor Baptismal Pool; Outdoor Baptism
Tips for attending. If the ceremony is held as a part of a regular worship service in a church, the baptized person’s family will often celebrate with a special cake or snacks in the church dining room afterward. Other families may hold a barbecue party at home or go to a restaurant to celebrate the event. If you are invited to attend, you may give a card with congratulations. Baptism cards are available at any store that sells greetings cards. If you wish to include a small gift of money, you may, but it is not expected. Other baptism gifts may include religious books, decorations, or jewelry (such as cross pendants or pins) and are available at a Christian bookstore or gift shop. If you are not Christian, you only need give the person your congratulations and a card.
Baptism Inside a Church (small children allowed close-up view)
Words and concepts
- denomination – a separate branch or group, divided by differences in theology or practice (major ones include Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian)
- christening – officially naming [do not pronounce the ‘t’ in this word, similar to “Christmas”]
- Old Testament – The Christian Bible is divided into two sections. The Old Testament (comprising 3/4 of the Bible) is taken from the Jewish religion and is sometimes called the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament (the last 1/4 of the Bible) is about the life and teachings of Jesus.
- paternal grandparents – the parents of the father (maternal = of the mother)
- hymn – a religious song sung in church [sounds like “him,” don’t pronounce the ‘n’]
- Holy Spirit – symbol of the energy of the church community (sometimes called Holy Ghost)
- God/Jesus/Holy Ghost – considered three elements of the Triune God, 3 parts united as one entity (Christianity often uses the symbolism of 3)
- cleansing – cleaning, purifying [“cleanse” rhymes with “lens”]
- sanctuary – the large space of the church used for worship services