Like a lot of Christians who were baptized around the “age of accountability,” I don’t remember a lot about preparing for that moment. I believe that my family and community of faith gave me a clear enough picture of a gracious God that I knew God had promised good to me, and that baptism was receiving God’s gift, not declaring my own righteous work. I remember a fairly strong sense of “well, why not tonight?” and being moved as we sang to take that step forward, literally, to make that public commitment and receive that public commission that I would be a Christian, on purpose.
I did it at camp. There are barely any faces left in my memory from that night, and only a few names. I don’t remember anybody being there that is part of my spiritual life today.
In the years since, I’ve come to understand my baptism in a way I could never have anticipated. I have become indebted to the present hearts, minds, and hands of a faith family whose faces are ever vivid in my thoughts and prayers, who carry me on the journey of the baptized life. But it’s good to have that moment to recall, to remember — even in a way bolstered by the haze of memory — that I came into a mystery that unfolds each day as the brand-new-again love of God.
Sometimes at my church, when someone is baptized, up at the faculty pool (just like in the New Testament church) we take a moment for all those who have already been to the water to put a hand back in for a moment, to remember, or recall out of something beyond memory, what it means that they went into that water, too. We are a family of water and spirit, those in this branch of God’s people. Every time someone rises from that watery grave, we welcome them to a life of sharing the gift.
One of the clear ideas about baptism, however Christians do and have practiced it, is that it is a moment of becoming part of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6 says something about this). We aren’t held under long enough to fully die to self, but we are raised to a life of journeying away from self towards resurrection. Every day I’m invited to step into the image of Jesus, who walked from his own baptism into the desert, and from the desert set out on a selfless path of love to the cross.
In the first few centuries of Christians coming to this journey, there were a lot of ideas about how best to get started. For a while, in what some historians call “the golden age of the catechumenate” (and so must all of us), the older brothers and sisters of the church would guide new believers through a long period of preparation for commitment to the way of Jesus. Some thought it ought to take three years of working out your demons and your doctrine before you could begin the journey. Some felt there were mysteries – the sacraments themselves – too sacred to share with those who had not yet given their whole life in baptism.
At one point, leaders suggested that those who wanted to be baptized take the plunge on the day of Easter, commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus in the drama of their own. In preparation for that, both the new students of Jesus’ way and the whole community of disciples would spend the forty days prior to Easter examining their preparedness for that culminating commitment. The whole church stood with the candidates for Christianity through the teaching, prayer, fasting, and discipline that shaped that forty days. So, together, at Easter, the whole church celebrated their baptism into Christ, with a sense that they’d all come to the water to place their lives (again) into the hands of God.
So, what’s the deal with a Church of Christ school and an Ash Wednesday service? Well, for one, there’s quite a spectrum of folks here who join in the Christian mission. Some of us are eager to do what’s natural on February 22, and some of us are getting to learn from those who know how to do it well. If it wasn’t part of our Christian heritage already, it’s not like we had anything else going on that day. It’s hospitable, and it’s a blessing to those of us learning from the old pros.
But, truly, what a gift to get to decide, for 40 days, we’re going to walk together in preparation for celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus. And, in that Easter week, not just to give a nod to something historically important, but to bring ourselves to the water and remember that this is our central story. Whatever we remember about what it meant to become Christian, every one of us looks to be part of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Ash Wednesday isn’t something I do as part of my religious heritage, although I think those folks are blessed to have it. But it is something I get to do to affirm a central aspect of my religious heritage: I was baptized; my story became the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection; my family become the people who have received this gift of life; my mission became offering my life as an act of love to others for the sake of God.
That’s kind of a lot to take in. The simple ashen mark given on Ash Wednesday is a place to start over together, in that direction. Lent, the forty days without [something that I’ve become accustomed to], or concentrated on [spiritual discipline that is new or infrequent for me] could really help me get ready to fully, consciously celebrate this deeply true thing. If I withhold a “hallelujah” until we together announce “He is risen!” I’m reminded what a great light broke into my darkness. If my spirit winces because my body or brain or heart says, “hey, where’s that feeling I want?” and I’m called to listen closer to the Spirit – the mark of my baptism – saying within me, “you have all you need,” that’s pretty good practice. That’s growing grace.
It jogs the memory, beyond what I can even bring to mind about the day I received the gift that started my apprenticeship to Jesus. It also jogs my attention to those who are on this journey with me, however and whenever it started for them, as we all fix our faces towards the cross. It can even turn our strength – some of it saved by a temporary change of habit – towards others today, and my efforts towards how we’re all going to get to hallelujah together.
So, sure, that suits me fine.