Afew weeks ago, on the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, I brought my three-year-old son into the service to watch the baptisms. He watched and listened very carefully and was quickly full of questions. First, he wanted to know if his little sister was going to be baptized; I told him that she was baptized a year ago. Afterward, on the way back to his childcare room, he wanted to know if he had been baptized; yes, he was baptized here at this church when he was three months old on All Saints Day.
The discussion continued at home; he wanted to see his baptismal candle, and after we found it in his baptism box, he wanted to light it. This led to half an hour sitting on the kitchen floor while he poured water over my hand with a little shell, anointed my hand with some olive oil in the sign of the cross, and handed me a candle — over and over and over again. It was a holy moment for me as his mother to watch him so engaged with the symbols and language of baptism, a moment due more to providence and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd than to some master plan on my part for his Christian formation.
That experience with my son got me thinking about Moses’ command to the people of Israel: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:6-9).
Though it was given millennia ago, this commandment reflects a key insight into faith formation: for children to truly inherit their parents’ religion, they must hear about it and talk about it outside of holy spaces and religious rituals. They must discuss it at home and on the road, at different times of day, before bed and after waking up. Parents should go a step beyond using words to bring faith into their homes; they should post symbols around their home as a visible reminder at all times of their faith.
One of the main subjects we should discuss with our children is their baptism, since it is the sacrament of initiation into life in Christ, and since most of them are too young to remember the event firsthand. However, trying to “explain” baptism to a child seems daunting, even for someone with a Master of Divinity. Knowing what to say and whether you’re saying too much or too little can be a challenge. It may help us to take a cue from Deuteronomy: to rely not just on words, but to use symbols placed around our home to prompt these conversations. Displaying items related to our children’s baptism in our homes will inevitably lead them to ask questions, which is always a great place to start a conversation with a curious child. If your child was baptized in the Episcopal Church as an infant, it’s likely you already have some or all of the following items:
The Baptismal Candle
I was interested to learn during my training as a catechist with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd that, when teaching about baptism, we show children the symbol of the candle first rather than the water. Young children are especially drawn to the light; perhaps our attraction to light is an instinctual response to the God’s very first act of creating light in Genesis. (The Rev. Sam Adams observed this recently in a sermon [SoundCloud] at St. George’s Church, Nashville.)
On the anniversary of your child’s baptism, light the baptismal candle during dinner. Recall the day of baptism and how your child has been made a part of Christ’s body and given Christ’s light. If your child’s godparents live nearby, ask them to join you for dinner. You can read Scripture verses like Genesis 1:3, John 1: 9, John 8:12, Matthew 5:14, and Philippians 2:15. If you no longer have your child’s baptism candle, you may easily order one online.
Bonus idea: Use a special candleholder for the baptismal candle. I especially love this beautiful Orthodox candleholder adorned with icons of the Gospel writers and saints.
The White garment
The white garment is a sign of the new life we receive in Christ. Its whiteness is bright like the light of the candle, displaying the light of Christ within us. It is a sign of holiness, for we are set apart in baptism to become part of God’s holy people. Many of us use family baptismal gowns that are passed around as new babies are born, so we may not have it at our home. If you do, show your child the baptismal gown; if not, show a photo of your child wearing the gown on the baptism day. Read 2 Corinthians 5:17 about becoming a new creation in Christ.
The Baptismal Shell
While a shell is not used in every baptism, it is a helpful reminder that water is the primary symbol of the sacrament of baptism. A simple way to discuss the meaning of water is to talk with a child about how we use water: for cleaning, for keeping us alive and healthy, for refreshing us when we are thirsty. In baptism we are cleansed from sin and raised to new life in Christ. If you don’t have a shell at home, purchase one online.
Read verses like Matthew 3:13-17 (Jesus is baptized by John), John 4:7-14 (Jesus tells the Samaritan woman about the water of eternal life), and John 7:37-39 (a spring of water will flow from all who believe in Christ).
Photos and baptismal certificates
Showing children photos of their baptism helps them to see that it really happened, and to see that you and their godparents made promises on their behalf. Tell them about the promise that you made to raise them as Christians, and tell them why that is important to you. I have enjoyed using I Belong: My Baptism Scrapbook for my children. It has pages to fill in all the details about when and where they were baptized and who was there, as well as places to put photos. I will never get around to making baby books for my children, but I do have these scrapbooks for them.
You can also keep these items in a baptism keepsake box, for which there is a cottage industry on Etsy.
Our parish has a wonderful tradition of giving children a box marked with their name, the date of their baptism, and the name of the parish on the front. There’s room inside to store the baptism candle and shell, cards from godparents and other loved ones at the time of their baptism, and photos of the event.
Children’s books about baptism
There are plenty of books for children about baptism, so I’ll mention my favorite here. In 2013 Archbishop Justin Welby released a beautiful video to mark the occasion of Prince George’s baptism. Toward the end of the video, Archbishop Welby read the following powerful words from the baptism liturgy of the French Reformed church:
For you Jesus Christ came into the world:
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last, “It is accomplished”;
for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life;
for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand.
All this he did for you, though you do not know it yet.
I find this liturgy so moving, in its powerful description of God’s love for us before we knew or loved him. As a result, I was delighted to find a board book called At Your Baptism that presents the text of this baptismal liturgy to young children.
Once you’ve rescued your child’s baptism items from the mothballs and into circulation in your home, I encourage you to have your child present whenever baptisms are conducted at your parish. Some churches invite children to sit up close during baptisms so they can see what’s happening. Be attentive to any questions they ask during or after the service, and be ready to take them home after church and remember together what God has done for them in their baptism.