(As we reflect on the baptism of our Savior, we understand that God was doing more than setting an example. The author gives us a new take on the power and the place of our baptism in imprinting God in our hearts. Worth a read.)
I shall never forget the scene. With a mug of black coffee in hand, I was on a walk through my woodsy, rural neighborhood early one spring morning. As the sun began to bathe the landscape with light I came over a hill and was able to look down into a horse coral where I saw my neighbor, Mary, hunched over a foal. As I came closer it became apparent that the foal had just been born: she was unsteady on her hooves, and still wet. While the mother mare stood close by and kept a watchful eye, Mary straddled the foal, pressing her face up against the side of the newborn’s face, vigorously rubbing its neck. I had never seen anything quite like it before, but it all looked very intimate, up close, personal, even affectionate.
A day or two later when I ran into Mary at the post office I asked her about that peculiar morning. “What was the thing you were doing the other day with that foal”? Very matter-of-factly, almost as if she was annoyed to have to explain such a thing to a city boy, Mary responded with a single word: “Imprinting.” Seeing that the word wasn’t registering for me, she continued: “If, in the first hours of its life, a horse is exposed to you, where it gets your smell, and hears your voice, it’s much easier to train as it grows up. From now on I’m like a surrogate mother to that horse, and it will respond to my voice, and trust me to lead it. We’ve bonded.”
Imprinting. A deep and meaningful relationship with God begins with our baptism into Christ, where we get acquainted with the voice of the Son, where we become familiar with his ways. And, it develops as we practice our baptisms, entering the rhythms of a life of discipleship, most significantly as we exercise the holy affirmations and the holy denials of our new life: “No” to sin and evil; “Yes” to the Kingdom of God and the Jesus Way. We hear the voice; we heed the voice. We get trained up in righteousness, and we become increasingly intimate with the Lover of our souls.
From the time when we are still wet behind the ears, we are influenced and formed by other people. Observations concerning infants reveal that they begin to mirror their mother’s facial expressions long before they can speak their first word. As children mature it becomes apparent that they are unnervingly astute, observing and then imitating the behaviors they are exposed to, both for good and for bad.
Imitating others does not end once one reaches physical maturity. We continue to be influenced by others around us, and we have a strong tendency to adopt various versions of their values, idiosyncrasies, and lifestyles as our own. The notion, for example, that married couples begin to look and act more similarly as the years go by is a real phenomenon, because people in long-term proximity to one another tend to mimic each other’s facial expressions.
The lifelong dynamic of baptism as a lifestyle is what makes it endlessly meaningful, offering both descriptive and prescriptive language to identify not only what is, but what should be. Baptism offers a corrective (repent!) when lives lose their holy telos and aim, and it provides affirmation (beloved!) when relationally reconciled. This is the tension of holding a coin on the edge of the Gospel’s narrow way. Baptism provides the boundaries and guardrails necessary to stay on the Way with and toward Jesus.
People who are splashed in the waters of baptism grow to develop their sacramental sensibilities; they become alert to the variety of smells, sounds, sights, tastes, and feelings associated with water and its semiotic significance, recognizing that “everything in it is charged with value and encoded with meanings.”4 Each of our five senses serves this sacred purpose: pointing to the Spirit who brooded over the water; pointing to the One who commanded the chaotic waters to come to order; pointing to the Son who came dripping up out of the Jordan; all pointing to the Threesome giver of life who is partial to water as an agent of both creation and re-creation. As Tom Long proposes, “To be baptized is a sign that everything we are — work and play, personality and character, commitments and passions, family and ethnicity — is gathering up and given shape and definition by our identity as one of God’s own children.”5 Growing into such a sacred identity is the baptismal process, a holy lifestyle, requiring a lifetime of practice.