Augustine records in his Confessions how Ambrose, bishop of Milan, commanded Augustine’s mother Monica to desist from bringing the elements of the Lord’s Supper to share with the dead at their tombs. Many have wondered whether the mysterious “baptism for the dead” in 1 Cor. 15 isn’t some similar practice.
Ambrose’s prohibition is a serious reminder that the dead, even those who now “live to God”, ought not to norm our pratice of the church’s rituals. Likewise, questions about salvation of marooned men on deserted islands are not starting points from which we can come to a proper understanding of the efficacy or power of baptism and the Supper.
But in this post, I want us to consider a much more common case: that of infants, especially those who depart this life in infancy or even in utero. And I want to argue that, although these little ones cannot norm our practice of the sacraments, and indeed, do not even have much of a part to play in the liturgical life of the congregation assembled for covenant-renewal worship, they are nonetheless indispensable parts of the body of Christ, and have a ministry from Him that must be respected.
I gave a speech on Reformation Day last year in which I mentioned the life and death of a little girl named Vivian, who had been born prematurely and struggled for about half a year before succumbing to pneumonia. In it, I reminded my audience that she too was a sharer in the priesthood of all believers. She did what all priests are called to do: she brought people closer to God. In this case, she brought her parents closer to God. Their lives were irrevocably changed by her brief life, and that for the better.
My wife and I lost our first 2 children in the womb. We buried the first — a tiny, 5-inch long son — with a pastor present, in a ceremony made beautiful — and bearable — by a clear understanding that we were prohibited by God’s Word from doubting our child’s holiness.
As Peter Leithart has so elegantly shown in his book The Priesthood of the Plebs, baptism is initiation to priesthood. By baptism, we are united to Christ, and share in his threefold office. Therefore, babies in union with Christ, babies in the covenant, are priests. They have an office. And they fulfill it. In the case of Vivian Gregory and of the two Colvin children whom Sora and I buried, their parents were the main beneficiaries of their priestly office.
When I asserted this to one of my baptistic colleagues at work, he replied, “It’s rather hard for me to use the term ‘priesthood’ for anything so passive.”
This remark demonstrates that my colleague is still under the stoicheia. He is still thinking in terms of the principalities and powers. He thinks that the members of Christ’s body are more or less priests — and thus also more or less members of Christ’s body — depending on how active or deliberate or conscious they are. He thinks God is “the God of mature, professing Christians only”, to use Mark Horne’s memorable phrase.
This is directly contrary to the apostle Paul’s teaching. He writes, in 1 Cor. 12:
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
It may be hard to understand how someone small is acting as a priest by receiving love and care from larger, seemingly more capable persons. But this is indeed Paul’s teaching. John Barach once blogged about Jean Vanier, whom he heard being interviewed on the radio:
“In the course of the interview, Vanier made an interesting comment about vocation (though my summary here represents my own reflections on what he said). We often think of a “vocation” as a job, something that requires abilities and skills. At the least, it’s something that requires activity. But if we define “vocation” that way, Vanier said, then we are saying that only certain people have vocations.
But what about people who are severely disabled in some way? Vanier insists that such people have vocations, too. It isn’t always easy to see what their vocations are, but then it isn’t always easy to learn what anyone’s vocation is. People with great abilities may think their vocation is going to use those abilities, only to discover in retrospect that their calling from God turned out to be quite different.
The vocation of someone who is disabled may not be to preach or to run a business or whatever. It may be simply to love and be loved. And that is no insignificant vocation. In fact, it’s a vocation all of us have and one which many of us [neglect], perhaps because we’re busy carrying out (what we think are) our other vocations.”
Amen. Vanier is urging us to recognize a fuller truth about the body of Christ, and see how we may receive a ministry, perhaps esepcailly, from those to whom we suppose ourselves to be ministering. For priesthood is not really about our doing or running, but about being tools in the hands of Christ.