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Although it can be an exhausting and sleep-deprived experience, the birth of a new baby is often a joyous day for the new parents, families, and community. The joy describes the various post-birth celebrations at which people gather to welcome the new baby into their midst, as well as into the world. The ritual can be religious or secular, based on the parents' values, to symbolize the child's acceptance into the clan, tribe, or culture. A few weeks ago, I attended the christening and baptism of a friend's daughter due to similar circumstances. At the age of six months, Joanne’s parents, and long-time friends to my elder sister, had decided to mark the beginning of their baby’s life in the Christian faith by holding a christening and baptism ceremony. Although the ritual was held during a special service during the week, I requested to attend because I had not witnessed a similar event before.
Setting and Participants
The christening ceremony was held at the historic St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Queenstown, New Zealand. To commemorate the memorable occasion, Joanne’s parents had invited a considerable number of guests including family and friends. The family members comprised of parents and siblings of the baby’s parents, two male and two female cousins, aunts and uncles, and the only surviving great-grandmother. There were also a couple of friends to the parents, and being an afternoon event, some brought along their children to take part in the ceremony. Younger friends, who I assumed to be colleagues at the church, were also in attendance. The party also included three godparents, whereby being a girl, the parents had picked two godmothers and one godfather. Finally, the other participants included the clergy charged with conducting the service comprising the priest, a deacon, and two altar-boys. With everyone having arrived and seated, the entire congregation was around fifty people.
The church had been prepared and decorated for the ceremony prior to the service. Although simply donned with white roses and carnations, the pews and altar depicted an aura of purity, calmness, and Godliness. The sensation was further augmented by the baby’s white christening gown apparently handed down from five generations ago. The parents of Joanne were also dressed in elegant off-white outfits, with the godparents also adorned in their impeccable dress. From the onset, it looked like it was going to be an excellent welcome party.
Reasons for holding ritual
Christening a child is the first step taken by parents who wish to have their child brought up and growing as a Christian. However, lately, faith is not the only motivation behind the ritual. Parents and families have found it to be an apt way to bring people together in celebration of the new arrival. Regular and irregular churchgoers are also continually choosing to welcome their children into the house of God, as well as in the Christian community (Dunn, 2010).Some individuals have questioned the relevance of christening a child, which is said to be a call for them to believe in Christ and repent their sins. However, they claim babies are too young to comprehend and commit to this calling. As a result, the skeptics advocate for a blessing and thanksgiving ceremony to thank God for the baby’s safe arrival, without any promises being made on behalf of the child. Later when the child gets older, the parents may then organize for a christening and baptism ritual because the child is in a position to understand what the process entails (Rountree, 2012).
According to the Roman Catholic faith, to which Joanne’s parents attest, christening is a meaningful service signifying spiritual cleansing and rebirth. Usually given to babies and young children, the ceremony is more than just an infant baptism, where a child is given their Christian name, has water sprinkled on their forehead, and welcomed to be part of the congregation (Dunn, 2010).
The Process of the Ceremony
While exact details of a baptismal ceremony are largely dependent on the particular denomination, Joanne’s christening was a specially arranged service held on a Friday afternoon. The parents had arranged for an intimate tea and cake cutting function after the church session, so after consultation with the priest, they had settled on 3: 00 pm as the most appropriate time to start the service. Besides, the church always had Friday evening mass at 5: 30 pm, and so we needed to finish early, allowing time for the removal of decorations. Being a specially arranged service for Joanne’s christening, the close to fifty guests were ushered in asked to get seated and ready for the ceremony at a quarter to three. Joanne came in some five minutes later in her father’s arms wrapped in an elegant white shawl with gold trimming. They sat on the front pew and barely ten minutes later, the priest had begun the service.
The priest began the service by inviting the parents and godparents to the front of the church. They took their positions surrounding the font with Joanne held by one of her godmothers. Usually, some priests will call the entire family to come to the front, but because it was a family affair, the rest of the congregation sat back in the pews. The altar boys then went round the occupied pews distributing cards and prayer books containing responses the congregants needed to provide. After the opening prayers, followed by a series of short recitals for baby dedication, it was time to baptize the child. With the parents and godparents standing around the font, Joanne was held in her godmother’s arms facing up. The priest then poured a little water on her forehead saying the words," I baptize you, Joanne, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The service came to an end, with the priest releasing the congregants after the final blessing.
After the religious service was over, the participants were invited to a brief afternoon tea and cake cutting function with light sandwiches and an assortment of small dessert servings. As a baptismal present for their granddaughter, Joanne’s paternal grandparents had prepared the small function in their home which was just two blocks away from the church. While the location was more convenient for the guests compared to Joanne’s home, hosting the guests also helped take the stress away from her parents who at the moment had their hands full with their new parenting chores. The tea function served as the most appropriate moment for presenting gifts which came in their numbers. To say the least, it was a function which would not leave my memory in a long time (Babycentre.co.uk).
Symbols associated with ritual-meanings and functions
One of the most important aspects of the baptism ceremony was Joanne’s christening gown. As the importance and significance of the ritual continues to gain value, and as more people continually embrace it, they have attached equal importance to the christening gowns for girls, and suits for the boys. The outfits eventually become cherished mementos handed down from one generation to the next where they are worn by other children within the family. In line with the traditions of the church, the gowns are made with white or slightly off-white material decorated with lots of lace, trimming and rather intricate detail. In the past, both boy and girl celebrants wore white unisex christening gowns. However, the trend has currently changed and children are now wearing modern baptismal outfits, where male infants wear suits and girls are adorned in dresses. The regular outfit is made from white fabric, consisting of a romper with a vest and other ornamental additions. After the ceremony, the attire is then put away together with the shoes, and hat if any. Some families also have jewelry including earrings, necklaces, and head decorations such as tiaras (Cooke& Macy, 2005).
The ship’s bell is also a symbol used as a naval tradition in the baptism of children. It is used as a baptismal font on which the child's name is engraved after the ceremony. The Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt Museum holds lots of ship bells containing christening information from the past. Tracking down and searching for names of individual on specific bells from a number of ships could be a difficult and labor-intensive task. The bell was also considered a significant memento of welcoming children into the Christian faith (Krueger, 2014).
During baptism, the Roman Catholics use holy water placed in a font to baptize the child. The rite for baptizing children is similar to that of adults where the priest pours the Holy water (affusion method) or sprinkles (aspersion) on the head of the infant (Cooke & Macy, 2005).The traditions of the Eastern Catholic faith recommend total immersion and baptism of babies in a font, the original method of the Roman Catholic baptism ritual, though affusion is the customary practice in the Latin branch. The use of water symbolizes cleansing through the Holy Spirit, which the cleric bestows on the child using the words “I baptize you in the name of the father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”The words from Mathew 28: 19 symbolize the Holy Trinity, a core of the Christian faith. While saying the words, the priest also makes the sign of the cross with his right hand. The cross is an integral part of the church which signifies the crucifixion of Christ on the cross, and subsequent resurrection for the sins of humankind. According to Christians, the ultimate sacrifice saved man from sin and mended the broken relationship between God and humans, eventually resulting in the birth of their faith (Weis, 2004).
Broader social, cultural, or religious significance of ritual
Christening is a Christian sacrament involving baptism, a ritual in which an individual gets initiated into the congregation. The ritual shows that the baby has been cleansed of the “original sin” and initiated into the first of various sacraments of their respective church. Together with the parents of the child, godparents are charged with the responsibility of the baby’s acceptance of Christ’s teachings and beliefs. The ceremony is inspired by Jesus’ own in River Jordan, though some Christian groups such as Quakers do not practice the two rituals together. The first reference to infant baptism came from the Christian writer Tertullian, circa 200AD. Therefore, it is believed that infant Christenings began at some point in the second century AD (Robinson, 2009).
The christening ceremony signifies divine rebirth and cleansing, with the literal meaning of the ritual being “bring to Christ.” The religious practice has developed gradually over the years. According to scriptural teachings, all human beings are born with sin since the times of Adam (Ferguson, 2009). . As a result, early Christians thought of the need to develop a way in which infants can be cleansed from the “original sin.” The Bible does not prohibit the ritual, though there still lies the controversy regarding the baptism of infants (Christeningessentials.com).
Irrespective of the various perspectives by different faiths, the Roman Catholic Church views the baptism, even for infants, as a crucial process which must be done as early as possible in a person’s life. According to the Catholic faith, parents have the obligation to ensure that their infants are baptized in the first few weeks after birth. They are further advised to hold a baptismal service without any delay should the child be found to be in danger of death (Dunn, 2010). Since time immemorial, the Catholic Church has considered infant baptism as a matter of procedure, affirming that the grace and mercy of God should not be denied to any born person seeking it. Further, the beliefs of Catholicism advocate for the equality of all human beings irrespective of their age or size. With the decree made at a Synod of the African Bishops, it was proclaimed legal to baptize infants even within the first two or three days after birth (Krueger, 2014).
Christening and baptizing of infants depict salvation as an undeserved and unmerited favor from God, and not the result of human effort. As a result of being sired and born with a tainted human nature laden with the burden of original sin, there is a need for children to experience a new birth freeing them from the controls of dark powers. Achieved by the sacrament of baptism and christening, the sacrament brings them into the sphere of God’s children, into which all humankind has been called. The Church doctrine further affirms that if it is denied to children for their inability to comprehend or understand the intricacies of religion, then it would translate into denying them the priceless grace of being God’s treasured and valued child. Based on Christ’s teachings, “the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” in the Gospel of Mark 10: 14, Christians believe children who die before christening go to heaven. In the above words of Jesus, he was speaking in reference to children brought to him for blessings (Ferguson, 2009). Accordingly, the church does not peg the ultimate salvation of a child on their christening or lack of it, nor on the type of service in which the christening has taken place (Church House Publishing, 1998).
The christening service comprises three interrelated processes including blessing, baptism, and christening. According to Biblical teachings, Jesus “took the children in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them” (Mark 10: 13-16). Therefore, when a baby receives blessings in the church, they become recipients of God’s unconditional love. In baptism, the child is admitted to Christianity, while christening incorporates baptism and conferring the infant their Christian name (Robinson, 2009).
Significance to Participants
During the tea session after the church ceremony, I managed to speak to a number of guests who exuded a lot of joy and excitement for being part of the ceremony. It was a significant moment for them and they felt honored to be active participants in Joanne’s first ceremony. Being Christians, they appreciated the importance of bringing a child to the house of God, and in his presence. In spite of the various modes employed by parents to welcome and celebrate the arrival of a new baby, many of which are secular, Joanne’s grandparents were especially grateful for the choice to take the Christian path.
The friends of Joanne’s parents were proud to be part of the glorious ceremony, affirming the big responsibility accompanying the arrival of a new baby. However, they were glad the journey ahead had been put in God’s hands by dedicating the little girl to Him and making her part of the flock. Besides, they agreed that bringing up a child in the Christian way would be beneficial and rewarding to all. The godparents were also appreciative of the ceremony, appreciating the task bestowed upon them of being Joanne’s spiritual guides. Having been close friends of the families since childhood, they almost felt like family and looked forward to being an integral part of Joanne’s life. They were also members of the Christian faith, though they attended a different church from the one in which the ceremony was being conducted (Christeningessentials.com).
In the short sermon and appreciation during the afternoon tea, the clergymen praised the young parents for choosing to dedicate Joanne to the church. The leading priest, in particular, congratulated the new parents and hoped other young people would follow a similar path, where they sought righteousness. To him, the ceremony was a significant moment since he was actively involved in welcoming a new life into the world, and also into the body of Christ. While he may have performed several religious rites before, he said, christening and baptizing of a baby were the most special to him. They signified a new life began in Christ, one which would follow in His ways forever (Rountree, 2012).
What does the ritual say about the people, society, and culture?
Based on the description and the significance of the baptism and christening ritual, it is evident the people are religiously grounded. By presenting their baby to the church to receive God’s blessings, it means they believe in the presence and power of a sovereign being. The ritual also shows their belief in God’s generosity by giving them a child. As a result, they are presenting the baby’s life in his hands for protection and guidance. The family and surrounding community know that life belongs to God, and without his guard, the world and all the earthly occurrences are in vain (Christeningessentials.com).
Additionally, we learn that the people are socially interactive and integrated. The reasoning stems from the fact that the ceremony was attended by guests from within and without the area. Having friends and relatives coming together to celebrate the arrival of the new baby is a sign of a healthy social life. Were it different, the parents would have a private christening or none at all.
The people have a culture where they hold human life in high regard, seen in the way they come together to celebrate a new life. While some may consider having a baby as a normal occurrence with nothing to celebrate, Joanne’s family took the step to celebrate the new member of their family with a befitting ceremony. Even without the knowledge or comprehension of her surroundings, Joanne’s people went out of their way to welcome her to their world in a most special way of dedication to the creator (Rountree, 2012).
Baby Center. Organizing a Christening. Retrieved from https://www.babycentre.co.uk/a554808/organising-a-christening
Christening Essentials. What is Christening? Retrieved from http://www.christeningessentials.com/what_is_christening_
Church House Publishing. (1998). Baptism/ Christening: A Guide for Godparents and Parents. Church House Publishing
Cooke, B. & Macy, G. (2005). Christian Symbol and Ritual: An Introduction. Oxford University Press
Dunn, D.G. (2010). Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A Re-examination of the New Testament Teaching on the Gift of the Spirit in Relation to Pentecostalism Today. SCM Press
Ferguson, E. (2009). Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Huggies. Christening and Naming Ceremonies. Retrieved from https://www.huggies.com.au/baby-care/christening
Krueger, D. (2014). Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium. University of Pennsylvania Press
Robinson, R. (2009). The History of Baptism. Applewood Books’ Store
Rountree, D. (2012). Baptism’s Beauty and Benefits. WinePress Bookstore
Weis, T. (2004). Baby Dedication. Retrieved from https://bible.org/article/baby-dedication
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