Epiphany: The Implications of Adult Baptism
and the need for on going rituals in our lives
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
As some of you know, the Christmas season is almost over- Today is Epiphany. That is the final day, the day when the decorations come down, and the celebration of the entire season concludes on the Twelfth Night, the time of revels and parties made famous in Shakespeare’s play.
In our Western religious tradition, this time or date holds a special spiritual significance. Many of you who were raised in the high church traditions of Episcopal, Greek, Russian, Armenian, or Roman Catholic are familiar with the day of Epiphany in its original meaning, where Epiphany is translated as the word for “God appearing.” As our western church tradition explains it, Epiphany commemorates the day when the Three Wise Men arrived at the manger and presented the Christ-child with their reverent gifts. Among the various interpretations of the religious significance of the Wise Men’s visit and gifts include that these strangers symbolize the outer recognition of the Christ’s appearance on earth. Narrow theology states that even wise Pagans like the Magi can come to recognize the only true God born in Jesus. But there is a more inclusive broader understanding! It states that whenever a sense of true wisdom or recognition happens to us, this is our personal epiphany; This discovery or expansion in our awareness can be made without either a specific date on a calendar, nor can be determined by one’s age or life experience for its occurrence. Often times, however, there are synchronistic signals- in events, experiences, conversations, our dreams or meditative practices, that do give us significant clues…
So that is the second, deeper meaning to Epiphany- one that relates to our personal insights and our spiritual journeys.
An epiphany occurs whenever a greater sense of God or reality appears to us. Like Jesus, and his connection to his adult baptism, our personal epiphanies can be acknowledged in a ritual that symbolizes a person’s readiness to live a more directed, a more focussed, or spirit-centered life. Epiphany can become a time when God’s appearing signals or when each person is ready to declare their own spiritual and ethical journey, and accepts the symbolic ritual of a designed adult baptism as an invitation and as an affirmation for their lives.
While it is accurate that one’s physical birth sets out our genetic patterns, cosmic designs, and the start of one’s human potential- it is only that- our incarnational starting point- We progress, mature, and hopefully evolve from those origins into higher, and deeper stages of development.
Orthodox churches keep a veneration of Epiphany for another reason. Epiphany also celebrates the day of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan- this event symbolized the time in his life when he was mature and ready to claim his identity, his holy purpose; it is when he publicly began to live out his spiritual mission for all humanity….
So, as a corollary, it could be said that the true start of a person’s life, spiritually speaking, comes at one’s baptism, not just at one’s physical birth…. Our spiritual birth comes to us during unusual times in one’s life; Most often, it comes during times of crisis, deep insight, after much esoteric study, or as the result of some truly life changing or transformative experience.
Over the centuries, Religions, East & West, will reflect on the human need for a more spiritual or deeper understanding of life’s events. If they are aware and flexible enough, if they are discerning and adaptable, Their clergy will create or design rituals that address those concerns. Their clergy design rituals to reflect the beliefs and values of the church and its people, and these rituals also underscore the teachings about the nature of our humanity- About the nature of God; about the value of their church or community, and what its people believe, and are willing to support. Rituals are used to reinforce what a spiritual person or their community trusts as the truth; what they trust and affirm, how they desire to live, or what they clearly and knowingly practice and preserve. Unfortunately, many of these historical rituals of affirmation and change, as they are given or practiced, have lost a lot of their value. One of the main criticisms are how they no longer make good theological or spiritual sense, therefore they are irrelevant. One of the main reasons why they have become less meaningful is that they are skewed to be done or used during only the first quarter or third of our lives. There is a great lack of affirmation for aging and for mature spiritual development. There is an absence of recognizing how we mature personally and change spiritually once we enter into adulthood.
In our wider Judeo-Christian culture, we seem to have an adequate recognition of human beginnings and early development. We are given either a bris or a baptism or christening…
Then in early adolescence, either a mitzvah or a confirmation, or possibly some “coming of age” ceremony marking the early transitions of self and soul. Without unpacking the symbolism of each of these rites and rituals, let me state that the first set honors childhood, the family, the inclusion into a faith community. The second set of rites and rituals recognizes the next step or stage in life- called adulthood. Traditionally, we hold Confirmations, Affirmations, and Mitzvahs… You see, in the Early Church there was no mention or consideration of a time called adolescence; It is a completely made up interval… Recently, much has been made of the whole concept of new steps and new stages to our lives. As a necessary corrective, one no longer recognizes that a person of 14 is ready for adulthood. We have begun to extend the stages for adult development to include many of the psychological, sociological, and physiological changes that every person goes through over the span of their lifetime.
Previous to our modern era, the early emphasis for rituals made more sense. All that emphasis on infancy and childhood was sufficient to a society when few children lived a long time, or when it was stated that you were a man or a woman at age 13, and a very old person at 40- remember, when these rituals were first created, the average life expectancy less than 50 years!
Presently, let me see now, are there any rites and rituals for adults??? Well, there is a marriage ceremony, and when it is well designed, the service can include some recognition of maturity and change, awareness of growth, etc. But what do we have after that? Society and social science have recognized various adult stages, but what about our churches? What do our churches and spiritual communities recognize?
What do most churches offer after the marriage ritual??
Well, let’s see, umm… There’s your funeral! (Now, I will not stop to speculate on why those two events might be linked…)
While society readily understands the process of getting older, unfortunately, this understanding is almost always expressed in negative terms, as if age was a disease that anyone could truly avoid. You all have know the “panic” some people experience at turning 30,40, 50- and all the media hype that tries to convince you that you must do everything you can to look and act younger… Thankfully, our advances in sociology and medicine have investigated events and have named significant passages such as “the empty nest”, female and male menopause, retirement, becoming a grandparent, etc., where each group of researchers offering theories of how those specific events could change one’s perception of self and society, life and the aging process. (Of course, I love the idea that 50 is the new 30; and that old age does begin until you reach 75…)
Churches and spiritual communities, however, are lagging way behind. Few of them have recognized the need to extend ritual and meaning to the other two-thirds of our lives. Instead of learning from the indigenous or tribal societies that wisely have always included a larger set of rituals for these biological and social changes, churches have been stuck with nothing to offer in between marriage and death. They seem to miss the other meaning of Epiphany; that Jesus’ ministry started with his baptism in the River Jordan when he was age 30- or when at least half of his life was over. In accord with Rabbinic laws of his times, a man had to reach at least the age of 30 before he would be anywhere near ready to be given any credence or authority as a teacher. …
How do we recognize or determine readiness today? Maybe that is where we should begin… at age 30… Since our society has such a prolonged adolescence, often extending into the post college years, maybe adulthood actually does not begin until one reaches 30! Many women that I have spoken with claim that men grow up by 30!
But then a larger question arrives and confronts us- namely, what defines maturity? How does it differ from age? Maturity indicates a certain level of experience, awareness, or comprehension based on learned skills, reliable reasoning, trial and error, and the wisdom we can get from it all. We all know people who do not “act their age” which can be said as a criticism or as a statement of admiration, depending on its context…
In a correlative way, one’s spiritual identity as a person does not remain as a child but changes- changes in a way that needs to be acknowledged and affirmed within a religious community, within their church or spiritual communities. What are some of the possibilities? Well, in a few churches, there are special ceremonies designed to celebrate one’s independence, be they a college graduation, or a divorce ceremony!
Some innovative churches recognize that when a person wishes to change her/his name, or when they accept a new role or a new status, such as when all their children have grown, or when a spouse has died, and when a person retires or first becomes a grandparent. Churches are places for such celebration and affirmation. Could our church include ceremonies for these rites of passage, and what about rituals that affirm and recognize a person’s spiritual maturity?
Traditionally, there is a special category of ceremonies that would be classified as religious ordinations and spiritual initiations that differ from church membership rituals. While it is true that new member’s ceremonies are primary in importance to the life of the community because these new members now willingly accept an increased role and responsibility for the church and its mission and purpose, its security and its vitality. Membership, however, usually does not address adequately how a person’s spiritual journey and the process of discovery and inspiration are to be identified, acknowledged or understood. That is closer to having an Odyssey Sunday where members are invited to share their journeys.
Ordination and Initiation are also important rites…
Throughout the history of the church, an ordination is an event that marks a readiness or a maturity for community leadership. It is usually given after receiving a rigorous theological education, internships, and after passing exams that are both psychological and professional.( exception-store front preachers and mail order ministers!)
Initiation is quite different. Becoming initiated signifies entering into a relationship known as discipleship. This can involve entry into a Mystery school or into a more structured spiritual way of life under the direction of a master or a highly evolved teacher. Generally, these events have been best known as going into an Eastern or Western monastery, receiving tribal training, or working with a guru. Often, it accompanies some transformative experience, personal crisis or it represents a lifelong yearning for answers and for a deeper, richer understanding of faith in their lives. Sometimes ordination and initiation coincide in a person’s life, but it is a rare person who experiences both, or attests to their successful integration of all their training; discipline, and experience into the service of a community. In other words, both of these rites are unusual, transformative, and are to be considered as decisive steps- they are not to be undertaken without a lot of soul-searching readiness, and a solid faithful commitment.
In the Protestant and liberal churches, there is another understanding of ordination and initiation. There is an implied ordination for all those who are baptized or christened. This is the famous statement of Martin Luther who believed in a “priesthood or all believers.” This teaching states that by accepting baptism, especially as an adult, you willingly become a leader and a teacher by your moral and spiritual example. It states that while your baptism does not cancel the capacity to sin, it does prepare you potentially to become a light unto the world, and as such an enchristed person, you are called to be a witness to God and to act as a model for all humankind. Does this surprise you? It surprised me. When I first read this, it was during the years of seminary… Before that, none of the churches I visited or experienced in my life ever taught me what baptism could truly mean!!!
Here is where our wider and more inclusive reinterpreted practice of adult baptism or our ability to design a special rite of passage for adults in our community could be both a healing and joyous occasion. It would affirm our wider understanding of how that individual has changed. As a brief but meaningful ritual, it could be a public declaration that this person’s new commitment to their spiritual path in life can be positively recognized. We would honor that person’s depth of increased commitment to spiritual values, insights, and behavior as a sincere marking of their personal and spiritual maturity.
By including opportunities to celebrate life’s adult passages, changes and growth, by offering other members a chance to share their journeys, we are making room for an expanded, more spiritual approach where our community can serve the growth, wisdom and maturity of all its members.
Now, IF you were to design a ritual for yourself that would be a public event declaring your new identity, a new stage of growth, a new commitment to the spiritual life, etc. what would it include? Music? prayers? A round of applause? A devotional statement? Some kind of certificate of achievement? Who would be there in attendance, or who would you want to share in this ritual with you? How would you signify to the world who and what you have become?
I wonder Who will accept this new outlook, and be willing to declare their journey publicly? I await your responses. AMEN