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What about the Babies?

Human lives are marked out and segmented through ceremony and ritual.  This is as true for the non-religious as the faithful.  It is rooted in our shared humanity, which is to say it is rooted in Eden, not Pentecost.

Weddings.  Births.  Deaths.  School graduations.  Joining the military.  These life transitions are marked out by ceremony and celebration in every culture and major religion.

It is as if we are driven by some innate need, as evidenced across a broad swath of human cultures, to mark out the great transitions life through a planned gathering and sharing of certain expected activities, words, or behaviors with family and friends.  These life-marker ceremonies are typically both familial and religious, tied as they are to both identity and time.

Life-cycle Ceremonies in Religious Traditions

For example, Jewish culture typically celebrates key life cycle events with gatherings and ceremonies that are as centered on the family as in the formal gathering of the synagogue.  The primary ones (traditionally for male children) would be:
  • Birth (particularly Brit Milah or circumcision)
  • Puberty (particularly Bar Mitzphah when the individual first reads Torah aloud in synagogue)
  • Betrothal and Marriage (Kiddushin and Nisuin)
  • Death (particularly the Kaddish).  
It is noteworthy that New Testament Gospels give support to all of these stages, if you believe (as I do) the incident in Luke so carefully noted as occurring when Jesus was twelve is intended to typify his move into adult in the context of his recognition by the temple priests and scholars.

Historically, Christian traditions also arose around these major life events:
  • Birth (baptism of infants)
  • Puberty (confirmation and First Communion)
  • Wedding
  • Death (Last Rites, Wake, Funeral, Burial).  
Not surprisingly, the church evolved theological frameworks to undergird and explain these rituals and traditions.  In time, these doctrinal rationales become so embedded that later separation of doctrine from ritual is extremely difficult.  As an example, even after numerous Catholic scholars and Vatican II and the American Council of Bishops rightly revise the Catholic tradition of "Last Rites" to reflect its original function of anointing the sick with oil for healing (James 5:14-15), popular Catholic practice has continued the use of Last Rites (Extreme Unction).  The deeply felt need for a ritual related to death and dying trumps Canon Law and Councils in popular practice.

Protestant Responses

Sixteenth century Protestants inherited a series of life-cycle rituals intertwined with dubious and often erroneous biblical rationales.  It did not take long, in light of sola scriptura, for these rationales to be challenged.  Centuries before the early nineteenth century American reformers Alexander Campbell and B. W. Stone, history demonstrated repeatedly when people were given the chance to examine the New Testament, many concluded that only confessional baptism (that is, a baptism performed in response to an individual's stated beliefs and commitments) was consistent with the apostolic church.  So, infant baptism was abandoned.

Ironically, although much of the theological framework of the Sacrament of Marriage as understood by late Medieval Catholicism and the Council of Trent was also abandoned, Protestants did not give up the practice of weddings.  Even today, although most Protestants would consider a couple whose wedding was performed by a Judge or Justice of the Peace to absolutely be genuinely married, many continue to want a church wedding.  This is understandable.  Getting married is, after all, a major stage in the life-cycle of that woman and that man.  As such, we tacitly acknowledge it is fitting to mark it with church gatherings and a measure of ritual and ceremony.

The same paradox is true of death and funerals, as well.  The notion of the funeral Mass, with its attending benefits to the departed as they endure Purgatory, and the use of consecrated sacred ground was rejected by Protestants.  But, since death is such an intense event for families, churches never equated giving up the Catholic theology of Last Rites and Mass for the Dead with not having Wakes (or Visitation) or Funerals.  We recognize their roles are far more pastoral (helping people) than soteriological (related to a person's eternal salvation).  But, that never led major Protestant traditions to simply dump the whole thing, leaving their church families with nothing but a secular gathering at a funeral home, along with a few Hallmark cards and flowers.

The Problem of Babies

But, then, we come to the issue of the babies.  And here we are met with an overwhelming established tradition of nothing-in-particular.  Determined to avoid any hint of even the tiniest bit of confusion with the practice of infant baptism, churches within the Stone-Campbell Movement (as well as many other Evangelicals) greet the birth of babies with a resounding: "Yeah. Okay.  Nice.  But, no big deal."

Some churches make a weak effort with traditions like putting a flower somewhere up front or maybe showing a picture up on the screen to a smattering of polite applause.  Often, even then, someone will feel compelled to offer a clarification for the closet p├Ždobaptist hiding somewhere in the gathered crowd, "...folks, it's not that we think a baby needs to be baptized..."

All the while, we manage to pull off weddings (something no church before Constantine seems to have regularly done).  And we do it without apologizing and pointing out that we are not Roman Catholics and do not believe it is one of the Seven Sacraments and requires a duly ordained Priest.

But, when it comes to what is undeniably one of the great life-cycle events for many families, welcoming a new baby into a family, our tradition of no-tradition is as nonsensical as it is unnecessary.

The birth of babies should be celebrated.  Children are a blessing.  Never before in our culture is the need publicly and loudly affirm that greater than it is now.  It is something that should be observed by public presentations of happy and even not-so-happy babies. It should be bracketed in carefully chosen words and joyous ceremony.  It should be accompanied by singing and by solemn prayers.  It should be marked by beautiful certificates and other objects families can cherish and preserve and one day show to that child's children and grandchildren.

A church that sees babies as a problem to be managed needs to rethink its basic identity.  A theatrical production or professional show may not want the distraction of babies anywhere near the grand production, but a healthy family absolutely insists on it.  A sanctuary without the occasional sounds of babies is either a recital hall or a mausoleum.

In my own experience, creating traditions in our Sunday gatherings that celebrate births can be wonderful and joyous moments.  Call it the music of tomorrow.  Parents buy special outfits.  Family members gather.  Relatives come from now and far.  Pictures will be taken.  And, for everyone there, the meta-message is: we love this family.  Isn't it obvious what impact this has on some of these people who may have never been in our churches before that Sunday?

One old grandmother said to me after church once in Syracuse, "Oh my, I'm so glad you all do these things.  I always thought your kind of churches just didn't care much about babies." From her background, what else was she supposed to think?

And, for some of those people, this first exposure to church will be far from the last.

Baby Dedications

So, what about the babies?

Bring them in.  Bring them forward.  Hold them up.

Proudly proclaim their official full names before God in the presence of His people.

Publicly pray for the families,  parents, and for the church to nurture and love and support that child in the years ahead.

Personally, I'm not even opposed to a little drop of oil gently laid on the forehead of the child during such a prayer (making it, technically, a christening).  By all means, dedicate the family and the child to God.  The truth is even when such things occur in scripture, this act of dedication does not force those dedicated to remain faithful against their will.  It is a ceremony of shared intention and hope, not coercion.

However we elect to do it, let's make it one of the great life-cycle events for that family.  Such things reflect our shared values and our common hope the babies within our church family will be kept healthy, safe, and will grow up in the faith until the faith that surrounds them one day becomes a personal saving faith within them.

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