While sitting in a Catholic funeral recently, I was struck by the richness and depth of the liturgy. It said so much, both visually and verbally. The deep connection between death and baptism was reiterated again and again in the sprinkling of the body with baptismal water, in the lily-white pall adorning the casket and eloquently in the spoken and sung liturgy.
And I was reminded of the importance of our identity in our journey towards death.
As a Presbyterian pastor, when I officiate a funeral I lift up this connection by pouring baptismal water into the font at the beginning of the funeral to remind those gathered that “death is the completion of our baptism” and for the one they’ve gathered to grieve, “her baptism is now complete.”
Not only as a pastor, but simply as a Christian, baptismal identity is important to me. It is central to how I see myself and live my life. It matters very much to me that I have been adopted as God’s child and incorporated into a body of faith. It is significant that through baptism, I share in Christ’s identity.
This unity in Christ via the bond of the Spirit runs deep and holds strong. This is who I know myself to be: a baptized and beloved child of God. It is what gives me strength and hope and purpose as I move through my days on this earth.
But for many, baptismal identity is not formative; it is not at the core of who they know themselves to be. Some live with an identity developed from the broken stories they inhabit: victim, addict, unemployed. For many, identity is summed up in a disability or disease. A variety of circumstances shape our identity as determined by the world. However, for Christians, our true and core identity will always be as God’s beloved.
Living in to this identity can take a lifetime of work. It will likely require some undoing of learned behavior and lifelong commentary.
This work will have great payoff, however, since it is only as we die to our identity as configured by the world that we are set free from our slavery to our fear of death and can, therefore, live the abundant life God intends for us.
Psychologist and theologian Richard Beck writes in “The Slavery of Death” that we live in a culture of death avoidance that actually perpetuates our condition of slavery to our fear of death. This plays itself out in many ways in our culture, though most significantly in “the demand to conceal any weakness, failure, and disability.” We live in denial of the reality of our frailty and finitude as human beings, instead buying into the cultural lie of an ever-present ethic of success and a normative narrative of excellence so prevalent in our society.
This lie has certainly found its way into the church where putting on a “happy face” and insisting we are “fine” is all too common, preventing true Christian community by promoting rugged individualism which runs counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Culturally, this has been countered by the recent “Failure: Lab” movement where, in TED-talk format, ordinary folks are featured sharing their moving and often transforming stories of a brush with failure and what they learned from the experience. Their website describes it this way: “In a refreshing environment of openness, it helps pave the way for change by crushing the isolation and stigma around failure. Failure then takes its rightful place as the crucial first step to the next big thing. Embrace it, learn from it, build on it.”
However, the problem runs deeper than our collective or individual experience – all the way down to our core identity. And, the church has an opportunity to speak a word of freedom and truth into this cultural moment. Who we are in Christ is who we truly are. This is who, at our deepest and truest level, God created us to be.
Our identities as shaped by the world, and very often shaped negatively by failure or perceived failure or shaped excessively positively by success and acquisition, have been deemed an “identity of possession.” According to Beck, this creates an impulse toward self-preservation, feeding our fear of death and our enslavement to it. Thus, “being set free from the slavery of death requires a complete overhaul of our identities.”
This is where the church can speak a word of hope! Our core identity as followers of Christ is found in Christ. As Beck puts it, “Liberation from the slavery of death involves death and resurrection.” We must die to our fear of death. Otherwise we are preoccupied with self and preservation of this same self, which renders us unable to be attuned to, focused on and able to love and serve the other. Since slavery to fear of death compromises our ability to love, claiming our baptismal identity frees us for love. It frees us for life, abundant and eternal!
When we are able to die to our world-shaped identity and receive our Christ-shaped identity as the gift it is, our capacity to love others, self and God will be opened wide. When we are no longer fearful or anxious about loss, failure, weakness and death itself, we are better able to embrace others and ourselves with compassion and care. We will then have no need to be aggressive, aggrandizing or competitive.
Knowing we are loved, we are free to love others. Living a life of love leads us to journey towards death trusting in the One who is Love and confident of the grace of resurrection hope given through the One in whom we live and move and have our being, the One in whom we find our self, Jesus Christ our Lord. Knowing and claiming our core identity in Christ sets us free from the slavery of the fear of death and thus free to love others as God has first loved us.
As we grieve those we love, it is good to be reminded, as I was, of this deep connection between baptismal identity and death – that in life and in death we belong to God.
Ann Conklin is pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Mesa, Arizona. Prior to her call to seminary, she was a physical therapist. Ann and her husband, Peter, have been married for 29 years and enjoy being parents to Lily and Lewis. This article was written as part of her participation in a Louisville Institute grant project, “Congregational Life and the Dying: Renewing Resurrection Hope in a Medical Age,” which is being facilitated by J. Todd Billings.