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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

In the Name of the Trinity and Very Wet: a baptism sermon

Today we are baptising Christopher Newitt.  I am of the school that says that baptism should be in the name of the Holy Trinity, and very wet. It is, or ought to be, a ceremony of few words and lots of water. And this morning, it is the wetness of baptism I want to speak about. Christopher’s very name reminds us of the watery legend in which the saint used to carry travellers across a river.  Once he was presented with a small child whose weight made the big man bow beneath his burden, none other than the Christ himself.

It is a paradoxical rite, because water is itself paradoxical, ambiguous.  In our celebration of baptism water is the focus.  Yet baptism has a dark side, for water is dangerous, unpredictable, capricious.  Outside its proper bounds, it threatens our stability, our safety, our very existence even. In sufficient quantities, it stirs up our primeval fear of chaos.  The ungovernable deep, in the mythologies of most cultures, is where demons lurk: Leviathan, Rahab, Tiamat, Moby Dick, Titanic, all symbols of terror and destruction.  Creation, in many myths, is to subdue the deep, establish its bounds which it cannot pass.  Chaos is kept at bay only at great cost.

So baptism, like all rites of passage, is an ordeal. It symbolically dangles us over the abyss, then plunges us without mercy into it, into the deep waters of death as the baptism rite puts it.  There, we are ritually speaking drowned.  Something in us is put to death for ever, for there can be no going back on baptism. The rite is as cruel and unforgiving as the waters that swept across the old world in the days of Noah and engulfed it. The waters of the font confront us with our mortal destiny, which is that we must die.  And Christopher, who is little and innocent and has no notions yet of mortality must pass through the ordeal of the waters. It is a time of trial. Jesus knows this well.  In today’s gospel he speaks about it, not for the first time: ‘the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him’ he says.  But his disciples didn’t understand, and were afraid to ask.  But the waters of death do not lie.  Which is why Christopher will be marked with the sign of the cross, the reminder that none of goes up to joy but first we suffer pain.  That is the character baptism confers: the identity of the suffering servant of the Lord.  Bonhoeffer said: ‘When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die’. 

Yet - such a big word for three letters - yet when we pass through the waters, God is with us. The ordeal is ours, true.  But it is also his. Where we walk, and are tested, and know pain, he has been before us. And that is to draw the sting of death out of the baptismal waters, for we know that we are saved through the ordeal of water just as Noah was delivered safely through the flood, and Israel walked through water towards the land of promise, and Jonah was not swallowed up by the deep but was spared to serve God. These archetypal stories embedded  in our baptismal imagery are our stories too: we who came through the waters of our mothers' womb towards light and life; we whose fragile life evolved out of the womb of the primeval ocean, we who are re-born in the womb of the font by water and the Spirit.  This is the other side of baptism: its glorious side. Water is gift. By water we are kept alive, sustained, enabled to grow. It is the symbol of life itself. Its natural sources - springs, wells, rivers, the sea - are amongst the great mother symbols of humankind, images of a good earth that is kind to her children and cares for them.

So baptism is a rite that holds out both risk and promise. It symbolises burial and resurrection, ordeal and deliverance, mortality and everlasting life. Plunged into the water, we are lost in it. We become as nothing and as nobody. Yet at the same time we inherit the kingdom of nobodies where all of us become somebody: where we are marked for Christ, uniquely precious, known by name, held, valued, loved for ever.  This is how I read the touching episode in our gospel where Jesus takes a child in his arms and says: ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’.  Children were the lowest-status members of the household in ancient times.  Yet Jesus reverses that assumption and make this little creature somebody of infinite value and importance.  So as Jesus welcomes Christopher at the font, and takes him in his arms, he gives him the noble dignity of being a human being and a Christian. Baptism saves us because it is the proclamation of Easter. As Jesus says in the gospel, his destiny is not only to be killed by to rise again.  Today, Christopher becomes a member of the Easter people. Today he learns to sing alleluia. Today he joins in the laughter of the saints and begins to play before God.

We are here at this eucharist on the first day of the week because of the resurrection. We are what we are, an Easter people, through this watery ceremony of baptism.  Today is the day of Christopher’s ‘yes’ to Easter, when he begins to enter into his inheritance, and be marked as a child of God. And if that is his destiny and ours, it is no less the destiny of the entire cosmos to be redeemed from the chaos out of which it was born, which the creation story likens to the watery deep.  In the little child Jesus held in his arms that day in Capernaum is encapsulated the entire history not only of the human race but of the whole created order: to be ordered, redeemed, held, sustained and loved by the one who welcomes us home and gives us space to be.  In Christopher we re-enact this wonderful drama of how it is God's wise and loving will to bring all things in heaven and earth into unity in Christ.

So much is gathered up in baptism. Nothing less than death, judgment, hell and heaven are hidden in its waters; infinity in the palm of the baptiser's hand; eternity in the liturgical hour; an old order passed away, a new order begun. It consists of a few simple words and lots of water, sign of the grace, mercy and peace of an abundantly generous God.  Your name Christopher means ‘Christ bearer’.  And that is what your baptism means: to bear Christ, to wear Christ, all your life long.  It feels like a heavy burden being laid upon your tiny shoulders, yet your baptism is all gift, for his yoke is easy and his burden light.  Indeed, in our gospel it is not we who carry Christ but he who carries us.  His pledge is that he will do this all your lifetime and beyond.  So, marked with his cross, wear his grace and truth joyfully before the world.  In baptism, all things are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.  Alleluia.

Michael Sadgrove
Durham Cathedral, 23 September 2012
At the baptism of Christopher Newitt
Mark 9.30-37


  1. Thank you and again. For making these enormous events unfold - no longer a social rite of passage, but now become miraculous.

  2. Thank you. Yes, they are momentous and miraculous. I guess my sermon is an attempt to find a symbolic language big enough to do them justice and to draw on the rich resources of biblical imagery to to that.