Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
BAPTISM is not a naming ceremony. That has been the underpinning principle of contemporary baptismal rites. They emphasise initiation into the community of faith over something that makes that community largely irrelevant, by appearing to privatise baptism as an act within the immediate family circle.
Among those who remember, however, there is a lingering affection for the BCP’s request to the godparents: “Name this child,” and it is intriguing to note the frequent informal repetition of the name at infant baptisms according to modern rites. What, then, is the link between baptism and naming, and why should it matter?
Outside of the small number of baptisms recorded in more or less detail in Acts (Acts 2.41, 8.9-20, 8.37-39, 10.44-48, 16.14-15, 16.25-34, 19.1-7), Jesus’s baptism is the only New Testament model. None of the examples in Acts mentions naming, and in the accounts of the Synoptic Gospel-writers, Jesus, too, is not acquiring a name. Rather, he is being acknowledged as God’s Son (Luke 3.22).
Against the background of the legal system of the Roman Empire, this makes considerable sense. Fathers were omnipotent figures in Roman households, and it was their right to acknowledge paternity by picking up a newborn child (this custom was known across the ancient world). The father could refuse to do this.
Jessica Weiss sums up the situation: “Roman fatherhood was volitional, legal and social, rather than biological” (“Fathering and Fatherhood” in Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, Macmillan, 2003).
That God claims Jesus in this dramatic way is more significant than a family tree extending all the way back to Adam, who was “son of God” by virtue of being the first created human being (Luke 3.38). Jesus is the new creation.
More recent liturgical revision has emphasised the entry into the new creation by seizing on the image of a God who knows and claims those being initiated into the community of faith. Both the Common Worship confirmation service and the alternative baptismal texts that were released in the autumn exploit the image of a God who acknowledges those being presented.
“God has called you by name and made you his own,” the confirming bishop tells the candidates, quoting Isaiah 43.1. “God knows each one of us and we are his,” the baptising priest tells those bringing children for baptism.
In that light, we might ask why baptism “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8.16) was not deemed sufficient by Peter and John. The answer may have more to do with prevailing patterns than with right and wrong ways of doing things.
Paul Bradshaw’s magisterial research into the origins of Christian worship cautions that Acts is the sole biblical source for explicit description of liturgical forms, and that there is no way of establishing that what is described there is typical over a wide area (The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, revised edition, SPCK, 2002).
Indeed, the episode recorded in Acts 8.14-17 appears to show different baptismal practices existing in Jerusalem and Samaria. There is a special reason for emphasising the essential charismatic element (Acts 8.15); for Simon, the convert magician (Acts 8.9-13), is not sufficiently reformed by Philip’s baptism to resist the lure of being able to dispense the Holy Spirit (Acts 8.18-19).
Did Peter and John insist that those baptised should consciously experience the Spirit because of a tradition that the Spirit had descended on Jesus (Matthew 3.17, Mark 1.11, Luke 3.22)? Since their call came after this event, they were probably not witnesses. John the Baptist, by his own admission, baptised only in water, leaving it to Jesus himself to baptise “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3.16).
And yet there are no records of Jesus’s performing baptisms at all. What we need to guard against is a monochrome picture of baptism as a rite with only one form. We are called at all times to read the signs, to ask what things mean in their context, and not to treat them as exactly transferable to other situations.
The next three Sundays will reinforce this, as will the feast of Candlemas. The episodes at Cana, in the synagogue at Nazareth, and on the mount of transfiguration are given to Jesus’s companions so that they can be sure that he is who God says he is. They leave their trace in every faithful act of the Church performed in his name.