Since the early days of Christianity, pilgrimage has been an important part of spiritual expression. A pilgrimage is a physical journey with spiritual significance. The earliest pilgrims were people who journeyed to the Holy Land to see the places where Jesus walked, lived, taught, and died, in order to bring into physical reality those things so often left to the imagination when they read the Bible. Over time, the destination of a pilgrimage began to widen to include other places of spiritual significance, like Santiago de Compostela, Constantinople, or even the neighbouring cathedral several miles away. Regardless of distance, a pilgrimage brought you to a holy place, the nature of which would make manifest the pilgrims’ belief and renew their devotion to Christ.
While every pilgrimage had a “holy” destination, the meaning and the importance of a pilgrimage was not found only in its end. The early Christians recognized that that there was something about the journey itself, the lessons learned, the hardships endured, and the milestones reached along the way, that taught them something about what it means to be a follower of Christ.
While the practice of a pilgrimage has lost its importance for the majority of Christians in our 21st century context, the concept of a spiritual journey remains very much alive. Christians often describe themselves as “followers of Jesus.” We describe the Christian life as a “walk” or a “race,” to borrow the Apostle Paul’s language. And just like the early pilgrims, we recognize that there are certain moments on this journey that stand out as milestones that capture particular importance, or sign-posts that prove that we are on the right course, and that we are making progress on this journey.
One such milestone is baptism.
The Milestone of Baptism
Baptism has been practiced by the Church since the very beginning, but today, like so many of the other teachings in the Bible, we run the risk of having baptism become just another on a list of things we need to do in order to be a good Christian. But baptism is so much more than simply a thing Christians do, it’s absolutely packed full of meaning.
Baptism In Jewish History
Long before John started baptizing people in the Jordan River, Jews were practicing baptism. For Jews, baptism was all about maintaining ritual purity before God. This was important, as it could be a matter of life or death. Nothing unclean (sinful) can survive the presence of God. By undergoing baptism on a regular basis, a person washed away any hint of sin, became pure, and were once again able to enter into God’s presence.
Another aspect of the meaning of baptism comes from the Hebrew and Greek words for baptism. In both these languages, baptism comes along with an image of immersion and saturation. Water jugs can be “baptized” when plunged into water. Fabric and textiles are “baptized” when they are immersed in dye.
As a result, Jews would undergo baptism before important life-changing moments, or status changes: coming of age ceremonies, marriage, or after a life altering experience. The washing was understood to wash away their old life, and immerse them completely in the new kind of life they were about to enter into.
For Christians, the practice of baptism carries all of the meanings that the Jews found in it, but with an updated interpretation. Instead of baptizing often, early Christians believed in a single baptism, because Jesus had made them holy, and taken away the punishment of sin once and for all. They had been dyed the colour of Jesus, and they could not go back. Baptism was also the symbol of the change from the old life of sin to the new life in Christ.
Christian Symbolism in Baptism
There are also, more uniquely Christian meanings in baptism as well. In Romans 6, Paul says that baptism connects us with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Like Jesus, who was lowered down into the grave, Christians are lowered down into the water. Like Jesus, who rose from the dead, we rise out of the water to symbolize our sharing in His resurrection.
Another important aspect of baptism was that it was a public, community process. To accept Jesus as the Lord of your life, and to follow after Him is a private, personal decision. However, God has designed us to live this reality out in community with other Christians. Together, we show the world the reality of the gospel. Baptism is the ritual that Jesus prescribed for making that private movement of the heart into a public statement.
This is a truly beautiful thing, because it’s exactly the sort of statement God made when He became Human, lived among us, and died for us. Through that action, God was declaring to every person, and to the whole world, that He was for us. By being baptized in the sight of others, we are declaring to every person, and to the whole world, that we are for God.