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So what happens to a child when they are baptized?
First of all they are baptized into a story. Christians are the people of a story. The Lord did not appear from nowhere with a message and language of His own invention. He came as the fulfillment of a promise made in the beginning to Abraham, in conformity to the prophecies concerning Him. The subsequent promises and prophecies, the peoples and the sins, the punishments and the mercies, these are our story, because it is the story of Christ, and it is the duty and joy of every Christian to know and teach this story. A child is baptized into that narrative, they become part of it. The stories of the patriarchs, of the judges, of the kings, of the prophets, of the forbearers of Christ, of the apostles, of the saints which followed them, and of course, of Christ Himself, are their stories. This is clear in Exodus, when Moses and the Israelites are commanded to tell through ritual re-enactment, the Passover Supper, the story of God’s glorious and nation-making act in Egypt. Children are commanded to be part of the ritual, and they are so because their birthright is this story. The same is true of the fulfilled Passover of Christ, when the Lord again commanded us to ‘remember’ what He accomplished for us on the Cross through the ritual remembrance in the Liturgy, specifically in the Anaphora of the Liturgy (se especially St Basil’s Anaphora). We tell the story of God and His people, because we are His people, and when we preach, as Peter did, as Stephen did, as Paul did, we preach our story. Our children are raised in this story, and by virtue of baptism this story is their birthright, it becomes their story.
Secondly, children are baptized into a people. From the beginning God’s covenant was made with a people, not with a person. The promise to Abraham was made to all nations, the covenant with Moses was made with the whole of Israel, and the New Covenant of Christ was made with the New Israel, the Church of God. We are a people called out of the nations, called out of the world, and through baptism we come to belong to a people who belong to God. We are made citizens of Heaven (Psalm). We embrace a heavenly ethnicity. My daughters, through baptism, belong to this people more than they belong to Canada, their country of birth. We have our Kingdom culture of daily prayer, regular fasting, festal cycles, biblical story telling, and we have oaths of allegiance in the form of the Creed, we have our national anthems in the hymns we sing, and we have our national heroes in the saints and church fathers and mothers. Our king is God. This sounds cute to the modern ear, but it is true, and it is deeply Orthodox, fundamentally biblical, so much so that this alter-nationalism was the basis for the early Roman persecution of Christians.
Thirdly, a child is baptized into life in Christ. “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus,” says St Paul, “have been baptized into His death. Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). This newness of life is what we all participate in through baptism, adult and child alike. Certainly children participate differently than adults, but no less authentically.
Learning to pray, learning to read the Bible, to understand their inheritance, learning to walk in the way of the Lord, eating and drinking of the Eucharist, being trained in righteousness – this is as much walking in newness of life as anything in the spiritual life, and sometimes children are more engaged in these activities than adults in their church. But because they have been baptized into life in Christ they receive the benefits of that life, that is to say the Grace, the forgiveness, the Fatherhood of God, the nourishment of the Body and Blood of Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit. The difference of twenty years and the ability to pay bills and stay up late does not make an adult more needful of these things than children or more worthy of them. Children become full participants in Christ, as he ordained them to be, and indeed as He became incarnate for them to be. This means as well that they are baptized into a promise. If they are buried with Christ in baptism, they will be raised with Him as well. They are raised with the promise of eternal life, with the expectation of the Resurrection. We do not hang this promise in front of them like a carrot (or a lollipop) to lead them to some future acceptance of Christ. By virtue of baptism, they participate in this promise now. They do so because they already experience life in Christ; indeed they grow up at His very knee.
-Fr. Kaleeg Hainsworth