I’ve been thinking about baptism and the preparation of candidates for baptism, and also about APEST (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers) recently, and find myself making the following connections between them.
In our liturgy of baptism, there are three symbols: oil, water, and a candle.
The oil comes first, as we mark the candidates with the sign of the cross, in oil, on their foreheads. This is an anointing. As such, we are recognising that the candidate has been chosen by God to fulfil a special role. It is a deeply Christocentric anointing – they are marked with the sign of the cross, the sign of Christ, along with the words ‘Christ claims you for his own’ – but it is the candidate who is anointed. That is to say, they are anointed into a share in Jesus’ calling.
Note that this comes before we get to the act of baptism. At this point, they are not yet identified with Christ as members of his Church, but rather are being identified with Christ in his humanity, as members of the human family. What we are recognising – what we are anointing – is a unique share in Jesus’ fully-human nature, his incarnation; and this anointing is for the purpose of taking a stand against all that rebels against the God-given commission that we should steward this earth.
According to Ephesians 4, there are five human impulses that Jesus perfectly expresses, and that we share in. These are:
the apostolic impulse to innovation and pioneering, to taking ourselves beyond the known;
the prophetic impulse to pursue justice and to protect beauty – and often, to use beauty to resist and overcome injustice;
the evangelistic impulse to share good news, wherever it may be found;
the shepherding, or pastoral, impulse to care for others, paying special attention to the most vulnerable;
and the teaching impulse to learn and pass on learning.
Each of us carries all five impulses to varying degrees, but we tend to have one or two that are primary. It is this Jesus-defined humanity we are recognising here. Where baptism candidates are infants, we have yet to (help them to) discover the role for which we are anointing them: we do so in faith.
Next comes the water of baptism. Here, we are identifying the baptism candidate with the saving work of God, who always comes to rescue us from chaos. The water of baptism, poured out three times recalls God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – drawing out dry land from the waters; saving Noah and his family during the Great Flood; bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through the Sea of Reeds, and, after many years in the wilderness, across the River Jordan into the Promised Land.
In baptism, we are symbolising the reality that God has ransomed the candidate. This finds its expression in Ephesians 4 in verses 8-10, which draw on Psalm 68 and the imagery of God descending on Mount Sinai and ascending Mount Zion, liberating captives and receiving tribute. We move from Jesus claiming us, as members of the human family; to God saving us, into the family of the Church…and then to Jesus giving us to one another and for the world.
The third symbol is the giving of a candle, lit from the Paschal Candle which represents Jesus the Light of the World. Here, we are commissioned to shine as lights in the world. Again, this is to have a share in Christ – lights, dependent on the Light. The baptism candidate has been anointed, passed through the waters, and is now sent out into the world, to make a difference. The person they are by Jesus’ involvement in their coming into being (Creation Order) is redeemed (Salvation Order), liberated to fulfil their calling, shining in the world according to an apostolic or prophetic or evangelistic or shepherding or teaching impulse.
The role of the Christian community – with parents and godparents often having special responsibility – is to support the baptised to grow in their understanding of what they have been anointed and liberated for, and where and how we are called to shine as a light. This is as true with adults who come to baptism as it is with infants who are brought for baptism. It is a lifelong journey made by faith, in community. It is a journey made in response to the call of Christ, from which we get the word vocation as a way of coming to our right selves.
I am convinced that the pattern of Ephesians 4 is key to our practices of disciple-making, and is therefore rightly there in the very liturgy of baptism – and all that brings us to that point, and flows out from it.