Two Sundays ago, our daughter was dedicated in the morning worship service of our Baptist church. It was kind of a big deal. Both sets of grandparents were in attendance; pictures were taken and a large family meal followed. Two other families joined us, dedicating a second and third child, respectively. One of the ministers spoke a few words about the blessing of new life and the importance of the church community raising children in a Christian environment. They also gifted us with a book on Christian parenting and a nice quilt embroidered with our daughter’s initials and a scripture passage I had chosen to be read as they dedicated her. (Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”)
Depending on which Christian tradition you are a part of, infants are baptized or christened or dedicated. In my tradition, it is believed that baptism is a ritual that should be performed for an individual who has made a conscious decision to profess a faith in Christ, and therefore infants are not baptized because they are too young to make that decision for themselves. Instead, we dedicate our infants in the church to being raised and supported within the community of faith. I don’t intend to get into a discussion of the meaning of baptism here; I’m aware of the differences of opinions held by various denominations and I’m very clear on what I believe about baptism. What I do wonder is how we honor the particular community or communities in which we choose to raise our children.
We have many different forms of ritual that seek to honor and include communities into the lives of individual families. This is what weddings and funerals do, in two very different but equally significant life events. I don’t believe that a wedding makes two people suddenly married. Legally, the courts do that; spiritually, the two people involved do this over the course of their relationship with one another and with God. I’ve performed plenty of weddings, and I can say that there is nothing magical about what I say or do that suddenly changes the relationship between two people. What changes is that the couple’s chosen communities have been invited to formally recognize the commitment they have made with one another and treat them accordingly. In a sense, it is a way for two people to say to their friends, families, neighbors and co-workers: “We are a partnership and we want you to honor our decision to be committed life-partners by treating us accordingly with your respect and support.” If you want an example of how this functions, ponder how much thicker the stigma is for someone who romantically pursues a married person versus someone who romantically pursues someone who is only dating another person.
It’s the same with funerals. A bereaved family invites their communities to participate in the grieving process, while asking for support and help. It is an opportunity for a community to do its own grieving but also to recognize how it is now different because of the absence of this particular individual. A funeral is an opportunity for a bereaved family to say to their friends, families, neighbors and co-workers: “We are different now because this loved one is no longer with us and we want you to honor our pain and grief and treat us accordingly by sharing your own pain and grief and respecting the loss we are experiencing.” I could list all kinds of examples of mourning rituals that serve to illustrate ways that a community treats a bereaved person differently, from time off from work to the barrage of casseroles from well-wishers.
So, following from these two examples, I believe that an infant dedication (or baptism) serves this same purpose. It is usually more connected with a formal religious institution, although there are other rituals that serve this function, like baby showers or birth announcements. But regardless of whatever theological beliefs underpin the ritual – sprinkling water, dedicating godparents, embroidering blankets, etc. – I believe the function for the community is the same. New parents are able to say to their friends, families, neighbors and co-workers: “Our family is changed and we as individuals are changed. We want you to treat us accordingly, recognizing that we as parents have new responsibilities and that our priorities have changed.” So, like other life event rituals, this serves as a formal request for a community to treat the family different. But in addition to this, there is also the invitation for the community to participate. This is present in weddings and funerals to some degree, as well, but I think this might be a more prominent feature in the infant dedication/baptism. It’s a recognition by the community that the individual family has changed, but it’s also a recognition by the family that they need help from the community. Raising a child is tough work, and there’s an infinite amount of wisdom in the old adage that it takes a village. So this is the formal request from parents to invite their communities to help them raise their child: “We want you to be a presence for our child because you share similar values and principles as we do and because we know you love us and want what is best for us. We want to entrust you with some of the responsibilities of raising this child and know that she will be able to grow into a more well-rounded and aware person in the supportive and challenging presence of people who are not her family.”
I realize I may be projecting a little more thought and deliberation than may actually be explicitly spoken or understood at any given dedication/baptism. Sometimes the explicit message may be something as simple as “Look at what a cute baby we have,” or “Please don’t let my baby go to hell.” (The same could definitely be said for weddings, which often communicate the message, “We are the most beautiful, amazing people in the world and you should marvel at the extravagance that we think our love deserves.”) But I believe that rituals persist in our culture for good, healthy reasons even if they are unspoken, unconscious reasons. And because of this, I think it’s in our interest to examine and understand how these rituals serve us. I had people this past week at church who I don’t know very well tell me what an adorable baby I have. Of course, they are correct and I am glad that they now are aware of the inimitable adorableness that resides under my roof. But the underlying message is that there are people who may seem peripheral in my social circle who understand that I am a father and are treating me accordingly by respecting my role as a parent and offering to help. (I’ve already had several offers to babysit.)
I think there are other ways we could be more deliberate in ritualizing life changes. Imagine if we had some kind of formal ritual for divorce, like an un-wedding. How might we invite a community to formally recognize the painful change that comes from the ending of a marriage so that a community both knows to treat these people differently and also offer its support? Might there be ways to ritualize life events like moving away from a community or losing a job? We do it with retirements and we even have ways of doing it when people buy a house (anyone up for a pounding?).
I’m thankful to have communities – families, friends, neighbors and co-workers – that I can trust to invite into my new life as a parent. I’m thankful to have people that I want to have around my daughter as she grows up. These people will shape and support and challenge her in a way that her mother and I may not be able to do. And I’m very pleased that I can be a part of community that sees this participation as an expression of faith and a commitment to help my little girl learn to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with her God.