Introduction – 56.2
Sally Ann McKinsey
The story of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 begins when an angel of the Lord calls Philip to set out on “the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza (This is a wilderness road)” (Acts 8:26). Luke does warn us, doesn’t he? I can hear the moody background music between the parentheses. This won’t be a story about the familiar baptismal font and rehearsed liturgy of Sunday morning. It is a narrative of the unfamiliar, unpredictable, and unknown, far from the baptismal practices some of us may have come to assume: small babies baptized at eleven o’clock at the front of the church from small baptismal bowls.
On the wilderness road, plans are often thwarted and surprises are common. Whether we see ourselves in the eunuch, Philip, or the chariot driver, we find that wilderness roads are not only dangerous places—they are also places to expect an encounter with the divine. Of course, we can also expect to meet God at eleven o’clock at the front of the church. And yet, as many of the articles in this issue recognize, the narrative about Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch teaches that baptism cannot be easily tamed or timed. In Larissa Kwong Abazia’s exploration of the relationship between preaching texts and baptism, she reads this narrative as a reminder that God does not adhere to assumed cultural boundaries and that baptism is about what God is doing. Columnist Colleen Cook also wonders what this story has to say about the fences that custom can construct around the font, focusing on the Ethiopian’s exclamation to Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:37).
These articles and others in this issue investigate nuanced relationships between baptismal theology, Scripture, and tradition, inviting a kind of defamiliarization and reorientation that may risk transforming practice. Many authors invite us to take seriously the unpredictability of the Spirit in the baptismal rite. They remind us that when it comes to baptism, we are always in the theological wild. For Lisa Dahill, language of wildness is as physical as it is poetic. She charges communities to consider baptismal practices in relationship with local waters and ecosystems, exploring the biological meaning of living water to reframe its theological meaning. How can baptismal practice help heal human estrangement from the earth and renew incarnational understanding? Stephen Fearing offers further dialogue about reforming sacramental customs in his exploration of baptism by submersion through conversations with communities that have celebrated more collaborative baptismal practices. Engaging the deep history of immersion in Christian practice may find some of us traveling on a wilderness road, right where we need to be.
Some of the articles in this issue discuss the implications of baptismal theology in social and political life as we yearn towards God’s just kin-dom. Claudia Aguilar Rubalcava explores theological meanings of baptism through the lens of racism in history, society, and everyday lived experiences. Gail Ramshaw offers a detailed consideration of words for the divine in baptismal liturgies, wondering what we might hold onto from ages past and claim anew from the diverse language of Scripture. How are we to speak of God-with-us in the midst of our contemporary longings for wholeness and multiplicity? David Batchelder explores what it might mean to infuse our daily living with baptismal imagination, inviting us to claim the serious wonder of baptism that calls us to resistance and risk.
As these articles converse about matters of theology and practice from various perspectives, they share a concern for materials in dialogues about baptism. Be prepared for enough water puns and metaphors to quench your thirst! Attention to materials runs deeper than language about water, though. Ann Laird Jones thinks about baptismal history, theology, and liturgy as choreography, and she and columnist David VanderMeer consider baptismal imagery in visual art history as a lens through which to explore Scripture and tradition. David Bjorlin explores hymnody as a foundational and vital part of baptismal liturgies, and columnist Meg Flannagan offers an image of music as revelatory material. Columnist Alexandra Jacob reflects on the challenges and gifts of revised baptismal practice in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time that has impacted material practice in countless ways. Jennifer Bunge offers a new series exploring story and illustration in The Work of Our Hands section, teaching us that proclamation can take many forms.
As I introduce this issue and begin my work as managing editor of this journal, I am grateful for those whose efforts have made this a space for dialogue and discernment about liturgical theology and practice. One of those individuals, Kimberly Bracken Long, chose the topics for this year’s thematic issues because we are celebrating forty years of the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry document produced by the Faith and Order division of the World Council of Churches in 1982. But I have a feeling this is not the only reason Kim chose these topics for volume 56. The authors whose work is represented here show us why continued conversation about the baptismal rite is so necessary. As the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry document celebrates Christian unity through the ages, it also invites us to deepen our practice in every new generation. Baptism may be a one-time event in the life of each of the baptized, but it is (perhaps more importantly) a lifelong vocation, indeed, a practice, a cycle of formation and re-formation. May this issue foster reflection on our baptismal vocation along each new wilderness road.
Sally Ann McKinsey, Managing Editor