I hate baptismal shells. You know, those tiny little silver shell-shaped scoops used to carefully drip water on a baby’s head at baptism. I’ve never wanted to admit this before since, not only was I likely baptized with one (along with water and the Holy Spirit, of course) at St. Mark’s in Milwaukee in 1968, but many of my friends and colleagues swear by them. Plus, what self-respecting Episcopal sacristy doesn’t have a beautiful antique baptismal shell that’s been used at the baptismal font for generations?
But, please, let me explain. My problem with baptismal shells is that, in my opinion, they domesticate the rite. The thing is, baptism isn’t merely a quaint rite of passage; something to precede the real event: catered brunch back at the house. When getting the baby “done” takes precedence over the power of God’s Spirit working within us, baptism loses its entire raison d’être. We might as well just take an ordinary bath or a dip in a hotel pool.
Baptism is a rite of commitment; it’s a rite of indissoluble relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s also a rite of total immersion into the Christian faith and the ministry of all the baptized and of being marked as Christ’s own forever. In whatever manner we were baptized, we can’t live our lives as if we’ve been sprinkled with a few drops from a cute silver shell. We must live our lives of faith with the reckless abandon of total immersion.
Let’s face it, our relationship with God is not always a neat, tidy, orderly affair. It can get messy. And baptism, as both an initiation rite and as a continuing symbol of relationship with Christ, should reflect this messiness. There should be water splashing around! And the shell, to me, is just too precious. A symbol of trying to contain the Holy Spirit rather than unleashing it.
So if you come to a baptism at my church, you might get wet. I like to warn people that the area immediately surrounding the baptismal font is the “splash zone” — you sit there at your own risk. No, I won’t go far as baptism by full immersion — trying to jam an adult into our smallish font just isn’t happening. But I’m all for full spiritual immersion, something the shell just doesn’t seem to convey.
And anyway, as we mark the Baptism of Our Lord, it’s hard to imagine John the Baptist, after screaming “You brood of vipers!” at the Pharisees and yelling at all to “Repent!” sprinkling just a few drops of water from a tiny shell onto Jesus’ head in the Jordan River.