Imagine this at your baby’s dedication. You go up front where the preacher does her blessing; perhaps water is sprinkled or maybe even your baby is baptized in a little font. Pious prayers are said, God invoked—it’s a routine that happens month by month in the cycle of the church’s life. Then a man walks in, “led by the Spirit,” and promises that your child is destined “for the rising and falling of many” and that he will be “opposed so vigorously that it will reveal the intentions of many.” Then this man says that you will find your own soul “pierced by a sword.” A little blue or pink New Testament would hardly seem an appropriate gift after all of that.
Jesus was certainly no normal child and that was marked by the extraordinary way in which he entered the religious life of his people. Simeon and Anna saw in Jesus someone who came to save the world but also to disturb it. They knew from the start that Jesus was going to stir things up and that the forces of death would soon mount up against the power of life.
It would be easy to leave this as a nice story that doesn’t mean much for us. We can just go on talking about welcoming children into our churches—crayons and a couple of bible themed coloring sheets to keep them quiet. But I think our Gospel reading on this day of celebrating Jesus’ presentation in the temple calls us to much more. If we read it under the shadow of our own baptisms then we must admit that when we dedicate children in our churches we are calling them to lives that will work toward the salvation of their people and that such lives will be opposed by all the powers that Death can bring to bear. When we follow Jesus it can’t all just be nice walks through the meadow praising the lilies of the field. We must remember that when we ask people to join in the church’s life we are calling them to a dangerous mission against Powers that will use all of the force of the Kingdom of death against us.
Flannery O’Connor understood this truth that with salvation will come death and division. Her story “The River” gives us a good picture of the risks of baptisms and the dedication of children to the Kingdom of Christ. In the story a young boy, Bevel, is taken by his baby sitter to a revival meeting and baptism by a river. Bevel is intrigued and asks to be baptized. The preacher warns and promises: “If I baptize you…you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?” The child answers yes and the preacher promises that with baptism he will “matter.”
After that baptism Bevel returns to life with his parents, who neglect him amid their lives of sin. Bevel wants to experience again the feeling that he “matters” and so he runs away from home, returning to the river. This time he decided he’d go in the water and “keep on going…until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river.” The child drowns.
Many have found “The River” to be one of O’Connor’s most disturbing stories, and perhaps it is. We must see however that through this story O’Connor is graphically teaching us to respect our baptisms. To “die with Christ” in the water of baptism and rise again to “newness of life” doesn’t mean that we will enter a life of “mattering” in the terms of the culture of death—a nice happy existence of full bank accounts, picket fences and our kids in “good schools.” Dedicating our children to the Kingdom of Christ means that just as we are dedicating them to a life of love and joy we are also dedicating them to a life of friction and suffering in present kingdoms of death.
In many churches we like to regularly sing together Simeon’s song:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.
But for those of us who dedicate our children to God we should remember the words that follow: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many… and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”