According To This Beginning
When I began this article, I stared at a blank Word document on my computer and wondered, “Where do I begin?” Beginnings are tricky. They’re important because they set the course for one’s entire project, they lay the foundation, they set the tone for all that is to follow. In the Prayer Book’s liturgy for Holy Baptism, there is a point right after the person has been baptized, where the priest turns to address the congregation: “Let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this Child (or this Person) may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.”
By these words, the church is called, not only to witness the baptism of one of its newest members, but to participate by praying for and with the baptized that he “may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.”
This edition of the Saint Francis Focus begins a new series exploring the way in which the Book of Common Prayer helps us to live and walk as believers. This is not going to be a technical examination of the “mechanics” of the Prayer Book or an overview of its history. Rather, we want to understand and come to value the Prayer Book as a guidebook for the life of Christian pilgrimage. We’re going to discover how its “offices”—that is, services for worship and the celebration of a sacrament—meet us exactly where we our in our daily lives, fulfilling our deepest needs as human beings made in the image of God and called back into communion with Him.
I’ve often heard folks complain that the government wants to control our lives “from womb to tomb.” The Prayer Book, quite literally, is the church’s handbook to mark our passage through life from womb to tomb. It meets us at every important stage of our life. It speaks God’s promises over us at the font at the beginning of our lives. It leads us over and over again to God’s Table. It celebrates our solemn marriage union before God’s Altar. It soothes us on our sick beds with the promise of wholeness for body and soul. It unabashedly proclaims the victory of His resurrection over our graves. It leads us by the hand from the font to the tomb and to everlasting life beyond the grave.
And that is why the beginning is so important. When the priest turns to the congregation at the font, he is calling for the church to take on a new fellow traveler. The baptized has just begun his pilgrimage. If only Christians—all Christians—could understand this fact: baptism is a beginning, the beginning of a lifetime of faithful pilgrimage. People think “I got baptized, whatever that meant, and that’s the end of it.” The next time they show up at church it’s to get married, and except for putting in a few appearances at Christmas and Easter, their next church attendance is at their own funeral. Nothing has changed for them. They begin, receiving the awesome responsibilities of baptism, but they don’t continue. It’s an aborted journey.
I once heard of an Anglican church in Australia that has a baptismal font shaped like a coffin. It serves as a vivid reminder that the font is a grave. You are called at the font to die to your self and make a new beginning, and then to walk in newness of life. In that sense baptism is both a beginning and an end. It’s the end of one kind of life, and the beginning of another. The Anglican poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “In my beginning is my end” and “In my end is my beginning.” We begin at the font, but we also come to an end there. St. Paul’s magisterial exhortation on baptism in Romans chapter 6 is a powerful summons to end one way of living and to begin another because baptism is union with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
Have you continued according to your beginning? Do you need to return to your beginning, put an end to the self way of doing things, and walk anew? We pray that you would live the rest of your life according to this beginning. God’s grace is there for you in very tangible ways: in His Word, in the Sacraments, in His ministers, in your fellow pilgrims, and in the rich and deeply Biblical way of living that has been codified and handed down to us in the Book of Common Prayer. Your earthly pilgrimage began at the font and will end at the grave. At both font and grave, you are placed into union with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. “In my beginning is my end.” “In my end is my beginning.” Having begun at the grave of the font, and continued faithfully through the passage of this earthly life, you come to the end that is but a new beginning, at the grave which Christ has made a portal to the Fountain of Life.