I notice that people these days don't get their children baptized until well after the birth. Why is that, and is it a good thing?
In recent years, the timing of baptism after birth has tended to be later rather than sooner, and this for a number of reasons. One good reason is to ensure that the celebration of the sacrament be well prepared with as much participation as possible.
In our complex modern world, family members and friends who would like to be present are often located in all sorts of faraway places. To find a suitable date in this situation takes a bit of time.
If the timing is right, however, and the planes are flying, people seem to be prepared to make the effort to turn up. On the other hand, a long delay might indicate a low priority given to things religious. Fortunately, we are not in a position - nor are we called on - to judge anyone in the matter.
Today, the Church stresses that baptism is a parish event, when the little new Christian is welcomed into the family of the Church. Around the world, people generally fit in with whatever is the local practice. The ceremony usually involves a number of children, and is celebrated either on a weekly, monthly or even less frequent basis, depending on the population of the parish. The onus is on the parents to request baptism for their child at the time they think best, given all the circumstances.
In the past, people wanted to have their children baptized as soon as possible after birth. They took seriously and literally the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, 'No-
one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit' (In.3:5). The alternative to baptism seemed to be exclusion from the kingdom of God. So the tendency was to take no chances. They wanted to make assurance doubly sure. Even if the baby was in perfect health, it was better to be sure rather than sorry. So sooner rather than later was the order of the day.
In those days, baptism took place in the parish church a few days after birth. Generally this was so soon that the recuperating mother was not expected to be present. Her absence meant that the celebration was somehow muted and incomplete.
These days, baptism is only administered immediately after birth if there is a real risk that the child will die. Today, particularly in Ireland, with our very low infant mortality, this is something quite exceptional.
A very strict interpretation without nuance of the passage in St. John mentioned above could easily - and often did - lead to much anxiety, especially among mothers. The truth is meant to set us free, not to cause anxiety. A single passage in the Scriptures rarely reveals the full liberating message of the Word of God.
This passage in St. John has to be balanced with another equally authoritative passage in Scripture from St. Paul: 'God our Saviour wants everyone to be saved' (1. Tim. 2:4). Known in theology as 'the universal salvific will of God,' this consoling doctrine implies that God is using his infinite power to save all of us, without interfering with our free will.
This passage from St. Paul is a source of hope when we think about the destiny of children who die shortly after birth, particularly if they do not receive baptism in the ordinary way. These children have been brought into life for some purpose that we will only know in eternity. The revealed word of God encourages us to entrust them to his infinite mercy with a well-founded hope of seeing them again.
An Inadequate Theory
How an infant who dies before baptism fits into this mysterious plan of God has exercised the minds of theologians over the centuries. In the past, some theologians, in the light of the passage from St. John about the necessity of baptism, came up with the idea of Limbo, a sort of pleasant kindergarten somewhere on the outskirts of heaven. They were convinced that innocent children could not be subjected to the ongoing experience of loss, but they did not know how to get round the requirement of baptism.
This was never more than a theory, and one we now recognize as thoroughly inadequate. Still, it influenced much thought and Church practice. It was very cold comfort for anxious mothers and fathers. One particularly heart-breaking effect of it was the refusal of burial to such children in the family grave. Thank God, this era is long gone. There is now an authorized Mass liturgy for the funeral of an unbaptized child.
Suffering and Salvation
Traditionally in the Church there have been three kinds of baptism leading to salvation: by water, by desire and by blood. The ordinary way is baptism with water as we know it. Desire is the way for all the good people who may never have heard of Jesus Christ but act according to the truth as they see it. Blood is by suffering innocently.
This third way is usually associated with martyrdom, and indeed the first instance of this in the New Testament is the massacre of the Holy Innocents, whom we honour on 28 December as Christian saints. Their suffering was seen as a share in the sufferings of Christ. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to consider the premature death of any infant or unborn child as a share in the sufferings of Christ and leading to salvation.
One of the preludes of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was a church organist among his other occupations, is entitled God's time is best. This is as true for baptism as for everything else in life.