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Baptism: back to the future.

The principal purpose of this article is to honor the rite for Holy Baptism in the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW, 1978) and those on the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW) and its Liturgical Texts Committee (LTC) (1) who prepared it, and to consider whether the baptismal rite met the goals set for it. A secondary and minor purpose is to compare the LBW rite with the baptismal rites in the two predecessor books of the LBW--the Service Book and Hymnal (SBH, 1958), which relegated the baptismal rite to its Occasional Services Book (OSB, 1962), and The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH, 1941) as found in its companion Volume The Lutheran Agenda (TLA, n.d.); and, also to a minor degree, with the new provisional materials in Renewing Worship 3: Holy Baptism and Related Rites (RW3, 2002), which is being reviewed and revised even as this is being written.

Toward all these ends, an attempt will be made to evaluate the first principal goal of LBW itself--"To restore to Holy Baptism the liturgical rank and dignity implied by Lutheran theology, and to draw out the baptismal motifs in such acts as the confession of sin and the burial of the dead," (2)--by examining five hallmarks of the LBW rite, which I enumerated in a previous article in Currents: (3) paschal essence, pneumatic nature, corporate understanding, eucharistic context, and ritual character.

From even a cursory examination, it is clear that the LBW took bold new steps in the creation of the rite for Holy Baptism and that RW3 seems thus far to be building partially on LBW baptismal foundations. The two previous rites in OSB and TLA did not provide much foundation for the LBW.

Did the LBW succeed in its goal "To restore to Holy Baptism the liturgical rank and dignity implied by Lutheran theology ..."? And what are the rite's strengths and its weaknesses?

Overall comments

In many ways, the evaluation of LBW can only be done by the pastors who lead its rites and the congregations who participate in them. Hence, I have done a brief random survey of some parish pastors who have used the LBW baptismal rite since it was first published in 1978.

One major difference between the LBW and the two predecessor rites (OSB and TLA) is that they provided separate baptismal rites for infants and adults, while LBW provided just one rite for all ages. RW3 follows in the LBW tradition. The differences in these approaches are highly significant, though they will not be discussed further here. Clergy seem to be in general agreed that the unified rite is preferred.

In previous rites, infant Baptism seemed to be the norm, while in LBW, with its multivalent meanings and richer ceremonial, adult Baptism seems more the norm, even if the respective numbers of candidates do not make that apparent. The LBW rite could well be the culmination of the process of the adult catechumenate.

A second general impression is that in LBW, Holy Baptism is central to the book. There are collects that remind us of our Baptism (e.g., p. 47, # 199, 200); and many Psalm prayers, unfortunately found only in the Ministers Edition (LBW-ME, 1978), have images related to water, the fountain of life, the flow of living water, etc. In a sense the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness is a form implicitly for the renewal of baptismal vows, as is the recitation of the two commonly used ecumenical creeds. Receiving the body and blood of Christ is a form of renewing our Baptism, and the Paschal Blessing at the conclusion of LBW Morning Prayer (pp. 138-41) is an explicit remembrance of Baptism, as is the address from Romans 6 as the pall is placed on the coffin in the burial rite. Also, confirmation is now properly called "Affirmation of Baptism." In the Vigil of Easter in the LBW-ME, Holy Baptism is central to its understanding and enactment. Thus, it is clear that the second part of LBW;s goal has been met-that the baptismal motifs be emphasized in such rites as confession and burial.

Music must not be forgotten.' TLH had six baptismal hymns, so identified. With SBH, the number was four. LBW contains nine baptismal hymns, with several references to others. The character of the music and texts is different, with LBW hymns being more joyful and less penitential overall than predecessors TLH and SBH. Consider, for example, the triumphant baptismal hymn "We Know that Christ is Raised" (LBW#189), with its rousing Hallelujahs at the conclusion. Also, note that "Even As We Live Each Day" (LBW #350), a clearly baptismal text, is appointed for use in the burial liturgy.

It is interesting that the LBW's baptismal roots are deeper than those in the OSB and TLA--the ILCW dug to roots of the ancient church, not just to those of the sixteenth century. As well, the LBW was prepared in the context of then- contemporary ecumenical bodies, particularly the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET) and the Consultation on Ecumenical Hymnody (CEH). (5)

These are some of the positive comments about the LBW rite for Holy Baptism. On the other hand, the rite has far more potential than has been realized in its twenty-five years of use. One frequently hears, "If only pastors would read the Notes on the Liturgy [in the LBW-ME] and the Manual on the Liturgy.... " (6) While great strides have been made to put Baptism at the center of congregational life, much more pastoral and educational emphasis is needed. Pastors and chairpersons of parish worship committees should be expected to read and follow the guidance of these and other valuable resources. (7)

A slight internal contradiction within LBW is that the laying on of hands and anointing with the prayer for the Spirit (in the baptismal rite) is confirmation; why, then, do we continue to have a later so-called confirmation rite for use with adolescents? Do they really need a repetition of the handlaying and prayer for the Spirit? As an eminent liturgical scholar once put it, "Confirmation is a rite in search of a theology."

Evaluation of the hallmarks

1. Paschal essence. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans (6:3-5), Baptism is our participation in the Paschal mystery--we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Luther echoed this when he wrote, "The sinner does not so much need to be washed as he [sic] needs to die, in order to be renewed and made another creature, and to be conformed to the death and resurrection of Christ, with whom he [sic] dies and rises again through Baptism." (8) Paschal references pervade the baptismal rite, but it is notable also in the suggestion that the Vigil of Easter is the context par excellence for the baptismal celebration. LBW also suggests other days for Baptism, but the Easter Vigil provides an unequaled baptismal context. Focus on the paschal essence is especially meaningful when baptizing adults and particularly poignant with infants.

The paschal essence is especially evident in the prayer of thanksgiving over the water (largely the emended text of Luther's Flood Prayer). (9) Restoration of this prayer to our baptismal rite is one of the greatest accomplishments of the LBW, for which the ILCW and especially the LTC should be proud. RW3 is proposing to include several alternate prayers over the water, but Luther's Flood Prayer (albeit emended for LBW) cannot be equaled. The challenge with all prayers over the water is that some pastors omit them in order to save time. The Flood Prayer and the Eucharistic Prayer are two texts which ought never to be omitted!

It is not clear to what extent the paschal essence has become clear to members--even in large parishes, who hear the words over and over again. More adult baptisms will help change that. With infants, it difficult for some people to understand Baptism as anything but cute and sentimental. As well, when pastors omit the prayer of thanksgiving over the water, the paschal dimension is greatly diminished.

2. Corporate understanding. Holy Baptism is always simultaneously personal and corporate. The LBW made major steps toward strengthening the corporate understanding by its appointing the Sunday assembly as its setting, the use of baptismal festivals, the use of plural language in referring to the neophytes, the welcome by the congregation, and the use of the Apostles' Creed. The culture's privatized understanding of Baptism is hard to maintain with all of the corporate facets and emphases. However, baptismal festivals are sometimes a little too corporate. Efforts should be made to avoid an assembly-line atmosphere. On the other hand, such festivals do enhance the corporate under' standing of the sacrament. Baptism is always personal, but never private; always corporate, but never anonymous.

Regarding the welcome by the congregation, the text in RW3 is called not a welcome but an acclamation, making the texts difficult to compare. However, LBW is to be credited for introducing the congregational welcome; predecessor books did not include any such text, and the RW3 acclamation serves as a sort of welcoming.

3. Pneumatic nature. The Holy Spirit's role is apparent in the LBW rite, at least to those who pay close attention to the texts and actions of it. There are two epicletic prayers invoking the Spirit. The first is in the prayer of thanksgiving over the water (section 9), in which the Father, whose Spirit moved over the waters of creation and anointed Jesus in his own Baptism, is asked to send the Spirit now, that new life may be given to the baptized. These are major improvements over OSB and TLA.

A second epiclesis for the Spirit (section 13) is prayed during the laying on of hands. The neophyte is given not only new life in Christ but also the seven gifts of the Spirit.

Immediately after the handlaying, the sign of the cross is made, which may be applied by anointing with oil. Here again is reference to the Spirit, this time in the past tense: "you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit" (section 14). There are multivalent meanings to this anointing and signation (including christological), and its history is quite complex, but it is at least a mark of the gift of the Holy Spirit received in Baptism, making us God's own people (see 2 Cor 1:21-22). We are "branded" as forever belonging to the God who made us. This seems to have been well received by congregations.

These actions related to the Holy Spirit--in the water, imposition of hands, signation, and anointing--are not simply liturgical "extras." The Holy Spirit comes not only in the water bath but also in these actions of the Spirit. Water Baptism and Spirit Baptism are a single indivisible action of the single indivisible Triune God. The Spirit elements are really confirmation elements, a significant return to the early Christian unified sense of Baptism, before confirmation degenerated in the medieval period into a delayed, separate rite for the gift of the Spirit. The ILCW showed great wisdom in looking back into early Christian history for what would shape the future church.

4. Eucharistic context. Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist are closely connected. "The gift of Communion is the birthright of the baptized."" Even when a young child is baptized but not yet admitted to the Lord's Table, the Eucharist remains the culmination of Holy Baptism. The connections are several. There is an ecclesial connection: Baptism creates the church, and Eucharist nourishes and sustains it. There is also a soteriological connection: Baptism brings, and Holy Communion renews, the gift of forgiveness. Because of such connections, the LBW expects that Holy Baptism will be celebrated within the context of the Eucharistic liturgy (which is, of course, the case in the Easter Vigil, the primary time for Baptism).

This hallmark is met when Baptism is in fact celebrated within the Eucharistic context. All too often it is not, but that is the fault of the pastor and other worship planners, not of the book.

5. Ritual character. The LBW baptismal liturgy is more than words. Its rich use of actions and signs distinguishes it sharply from the OSB and TLA rites. In OSB and TLA, there is a handlaying in both the adult and infant rites. In both books, there is a permissive ("may" rubric) sign of the cross on the forehead (and breast, in TLA). But these actions seem more central to the rite in LBW; for one thing, they are not "may" rubrics in LBW.

In LBW there are other ritual actions. The water is to be used abundantly. Hence, the Flood Prayer, with the possibility of the presider making the sign of the cross with his/her hand in the water of the font--and the amount of water is expected to be abundant." As Luther wrote, "It would be more fitting to immerse in the water than to pour with it, for the sake of the completeness and perfection of the sign." (12) Elsewhere, Luther calls for submersion-completely covering the body with water; immersion is dipping part of the body in the water but not completely covering it. (13) LBW suggests pouring, but the Notes on the Liturgy in LBW-ME make immersion permissive. Both OSB and TLA speak of "applying water." RW3 suggests immersion as the preferred mode while also making pouring permissive. If a parish does not have a font large enough for submersion or immersion, a larger temporary font can be constructed easily. (14) Such abundant use of water clearly speaks the "drowning" and incorporation into the death and resurrection of Christ that are essential aspects of the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

LBW reintroduced the ritual use of oil for the anointing. Oil has many biblical references and meanings. The sign of the cross with anointing with oil unites us with the crucified Christ, seals us with the Spirit, and starts us on life's faith journey in the way of the cross. As the LBW-ME points out, other uses of the sign of the cross (at the invocation, at absolution, at the benediction, etc.) "become acknowledgments and affirmations of Baptism." (15) Such an action may also be used at home (during meal and bedtime prayers, for example), thus leading people slowly into a more Christ-centered life.

Two other ritual actions are also provided in LBW: presentation of a white baptismal garment and presentation of the baptismal candle. The garment is a christological symbol: "Baptized into union with him, you have put on Christ as a garment" (Gal 3:27). Some sort of garment was used in the ancient church because adults were baptized, and they were naked, so some simple clothing was needed to dry them off and cover them for entrance into the main worship space (the baptistery was normally a separate building, albeit sometimes attached to the church.) In present times more infants than adults are baptized (although the latter is increasing), and the infants are usually already clothed in an elaborate white dress from home, so one wonders whether the white baptismal garment is now unnecessary and superfluous. Indeed, some on the ILCW Liturgical Texts Committee must have shared this thought, for the garment is provided for only with a "may" rubric, and that only in the LBW-ME Notes on the Liturgy, not in the rite itself.

The other action, which seems to be more cogent, is the presentation of the baptismal candle, lighted from the Paschal candle and thus a sign of the inherent connection between Baptism and Easter. As well, there are ethical dimensions of the candle: the neophyte is called to live and serve in such way that the light of Christ will be beamed into the world.

One danger in these ritual elements is that they will be more obvious and dramatic than the water bath itself. This can be avoided with the use of the thanksgiving over the water (a parallel to the Eucharistic Prayer) and the abundant use of water generously applied through immersion or submersion. All too often it is not, but that again is the fault of the pastor, not of the book. The renewed understanding of Holy Baptism may require the installation of larger and deeper fonts.


It seems clear that the LBW did succeed well in restoring "to Holy Baptism the liturgical rank and dignity implied by Lutheran theology, and to draw out the baptismal motifs in such acts as the confession of sins and the burial of the dead." This rite is a gem of the Lutheran Book of Worship. The Liturgical Texts Committee and indeed the ILCW itself and its project director, Eugene L. Brand, deserve thanksgiving and honor. And may eternal rest be granted to the main drafter of the rite for Holy Baptism, Hans Boehringer, and other members of the ILCW and the LTC who have gone to their rest, and may light perpetual shine upon them. Alleluia.

(1) The late Rev. Hans Boehringer was the main drafter. Other members of the LTC included John Arthur, Eugene Brand, Charles Ferguson, Edward Horn III, A. R. Kretzmann, L. R. Likness, Herbert Lindemann, Paul Peterson, Philip Pfatteicher, Fred Precht, Ralph Quere, Krister Stendahl, Clifford Swanson, Johan Thorson, and Ralph Van Loon.

(2) The goals are on page 8 of LBW.

(3) S. Anita Stauffer, "Holy Baptism in the Lutheran Book of Worship, " Currents in Theology and Mission 13:6 (December 1986), 339-45. These hallmarks are my own construct.

(4) Regarding LBW hymns, see Marilyn Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1991).

(5) For more on this, see Philip H. Pfatteicher's Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990), 809.

(6) Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli, Manual on the Liturgy, Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1979).

(7) For example, Ralph R. Van Loon and S. Anita Stauffer, Worship Wordbook (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995).

(8) The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), in Luther's Works, ed. Abdel Ross Wentz, vol. 36 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959): 68.

(9) The English translation of Luther's Sintflutgebet is provided in Pfatteicher and Messerli, ML, 370n6.

(10) LBW-ME, p. 31.

(11) See S. Anita Stauffer, Re-examining Baptismal Fonts (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) (video), and On Baptismal Fonts: Ancient and Modern (Cambridge, England: Grove Books, Joint Liturgical Studies), 1994.

(12) The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods (1519), Luther's Works 35:50.

(13) The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism (1519), Luther's Works 35:29.

(14) See Stauffer, On Baptismal Fonts, 57.

(15) LBW-ME, p. 31, section 14.

S. Anita Stauffer Study Secretary for Worship (retired) Lutheran World Federation Geneva, Switzerland
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Author:Stauffer, S. Anita
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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