Baptism and the Unworthy Vessel

August 29, 2004 | 3 comments
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Last Sunday, I confirmed our oldest daughter, Megan Elaine Fox, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her baptism, performed by me, had taken place the day before. It went pretty smoothly, aside from the fact that I forgot to bring my white clothes to the church, and had to rush home and back again at the last minute, desperately afraid that the car (whose gas gauge light was flashing “low fuel” the whole time) was going to stall at some intersection, and I would end up running a couple of miles, white pant legs flapping in the wind as I dodged cars, while everyone was waiting for me at the church. Oh, and then I panicked just before going into the font: was it “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ”, or “Having been commissioned by Jesus Christ”? (Cut me some slack here; I’d only performed the ordinance three times before in my life, the last time having been fifteen years before.) “Of” sounded more scriptural, but surely “by” was grammatically correct, right? Thankfully, Juan Montoya, a boy in Megan’s primary class, was being baptized right before her, and I realized with relief that I could listen to his dad say the prayer to calm my fears. Unfortunately, he said the prayer in Spanish, so that was no help. I ended up going with “of”. Good guess, as it turned out.

The baptismal prayer is one of only three prayers in our liturgy that where an exact wording is given. (Outside the temple, that is; obviously the temple liturgy involves many more very exact prayers and rituals, though of a somewhat different sort.) The other two are, of course, the sacramental prayers on the bread and water, which in our theology are closely tied with the baptismal covenant. The act of baptism, in other words, is the only one of the many ordinances performed in the “outer” church wherein the performance itself is considered sufficiently sacred and sacramental–not to mention of salvific importance– so as to require exactness. If the ordinance is not performed correctly, or so story goes, something won’t happen: sins will not, in fact, be washed away; bread and water will not, in fact, provide occasion for the renewal of covenants. Hence my concerns about grammar.

What was remarkable about the baptism–or at least, as I think about it, what should have seemed remarkable–is that God would allow one such as I to say those words, make those moves, and have the mystery of cleansing take place nonetheless. I stood there in the water, speaking of having received a “commission” from Jesus Christ, but knowing that I was not worthy to do so. The oft-quoted revelation makes it very plain: should we seek to “cover our sins,” “gratify our pride,” or “exercise control or dominion,” the Spirit will withdraw, and “Amen to the priesthood or authority of that man.” In so many ways, I thought to myself as my feet touched the water, as I looked across the font at my daughters excited, wide-eyed face, each of those warnings fit me well. I am most certainly, most of the time anyway, a natural man, an enemy to God, a sinner in need of saving, a man who ought not claim any kind of authority. If the priesthood is the power to bind ourselves and others to God, then certainly, if the above scripture is any guide, only those with clean hands ought to handle the rope. (Otherwise, what if I bound my daughter too loosely, with the consequence that God’s promises wouldn’t hold?)

Fortunately for me, stepping unworthily into that water, our church appears to heave taken the same point most of the rest of the Christian world also absorbed from St. Augustine’s struggle with the Donatist heresy: that God’s power in this world is ex opere operato, “from the work itself.” That is, salvific ordinances have within themselves–within those very aforementioned words and motions, within that water into which I immersed my daughter–God’s authority. The work will be done, no matter who does it, so long as they have been told to do it, and told how to do it, in the right way. Our church does not attempt to “repair” ordinances performed by those later discovered to have been even vile sinners; whatever authority the scripture warns us disappears with our sins, it is clearly not the authority to performace those rituals God has established with exactness. God would still pore power into me, unworthy vessel that I was, because I stepped into the water the way I was supposed to, and put my hands upon an eight-year-old girl who believed in His promise to cleanse her and make her His own, and God won’t ever let one such as me make Him into a liar.

I said above that God’s graciousness in making effectual and actual what I did last week to and for my daughter should have seemed remarkable; that fact is, however, that as I sat there afterward, holding Megan’s hand on the front row while Grandma Madsen (visiting from Michigan) spoke about the gift of the Holy Ghost, that while I knew is was a remarkable thing, I didn’t feel amazed. The fact that God has this ritually contructed, unfailing relationship with us all–that He will, as I put it when quoting Stanley Hauerwas in another post a while ago, “show up anyway”–is something I take with great seriousness, but at that moment, it didn’t seem especially impressive to me. The next day, however, I confirmed and gave a blessing to my daughter, an ordinance that, like baby blessings, does not have any sacred exactness to it. It is an open-ended act of prayer and pleading, one with a few recommended passages–more traditional than scriptural–but otherwise without any promise of God’s attendance. No ritual reality, warmly surrounding us like water, as there was in the font; just my child and I and some friends and family, standing up front and quite alone. I spoke slowly, my voice breaking; I sat down beside Melissa afterwards, and wept uncontrollably. I love and honor and appreciate the sacramental, but I cannot deny that it is when I am groping and hoping and longing desperately for His presence and guidance, and not when He offers Himself and His power to us with such incarnate immediacy, that I seem to believe in Him most. Maybe that just means that I am mostly Protestant after all.

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3 Responses to Baptism and the Unworthy Vessel

  1. Rob on August 30, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    Thanks for sharing that, Russell. The right to perform family ordinances are one of the greatest blessings, eh?

    For me, the sacramental ordinances are more awe-inspiring than the priesthood blessing type ordinances. Like most of us, I’ve witnessed some pretty amazing priesthood blessing results. But I’ve never felt the spirit as much as I have witnessing baptisms. I don’t think its just residual emotional pumping up for baptisms from the mission. I think I can almost hear the gates of the kingdom swinging wide in the water splash. There is something to the rending of the veil there, something akin to the Lord extending his hand through the veil to the Brother of Jared. While most of the time I am struggling and wrestling with the Lord, the sacramental ordinances are the one time when I can be still and know that He is God.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on August 30, 2004 at 5:19 pm

    Thanks Rob. I should have put written this and put it up last week, but better late than never.

    It doesn’t surprise me that you feel greater awe than I do in sacramental performances. (No doubt you get more out of the temple than I do as well.) You’re a much more mystical guy than I am, for all my talk about immanent this-and-that. As I said, I have great respect and love for the ritual and sacramental aspects of our faith. But I guess my conception of the power of tradition and performance is much more tied up in our own frail willing of such, rather than our acting as vessels for such. It’s hard, and probably counter-productive, to try to distinguish too much between the two, but still the fact remains: I know baptism is a key that unlocks a gate, but–if Megan’s baptism is any guide–I did not find my belief most fully engaged until the gate had swung open wide and her future path lay before me, all quiet and unwritten and (as yet) empty. Kierkegaardian fear and trembling and all that, I guess.

  3. Adam Greenwood on August 30, 2004 at 6:04 pm

    Luckily for the quasi-Protestants among us, like the Grey Fox, and for the quasi-Catholics, like Rob and I, the church does both.

    I am not so sure that we’ve learned any lesson from the Donatist controversy. It may well be that our performance of ordinances is accepted only provisionally, pending the future day in which we accept finally or reject finally the commission God has given us and the roles that come with it. If some of us turn away, than I would not at all be surprised if the ordinances we performed were taken from us and given to another, to be performed again in the millennial kingdom. We might then discover that we valued having performed then more than we thought.

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