By Lauren Sanchez, Crosswalk.com
Christening is known as a form of baptism, common in the Catholic or Anglican Church. Typically baptizing infants and small children, it involves a lengthy ceremony and often, the child is given a new, Christian name, in the presence of family and friends. Children receive godparents to help them along in their faith and in life and are welcomed into the Church. Christening is a significant moment these believers.
Due to the baptism of infants, some protestant churches do not practice christening, believing that baptism should be for those who have confessed their sin and repented, who have chosen to follow Jesus and want to publicly profess this.
Questions such as what is the significance of christening, how did it originate, and is it biblical will be discussed in this article.
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What Is Christening?
Although christening is most common with infants or small children, the Church of England’s policy is that anyone can be christened, whether adult, child, or infant, “so long as they have not been baptized already.” Furthermore, they state that children can be “christened at any age.”
Along with the baptism component, the name-giving component can be a big part of the Christening ceremony. Ashley Osmera writes, There’s nothing that says “Catholic” quite like the names of saints and angels, biblical figures, or Christian feasts and virtues during the Catholic Rite of Baptism!”
When Are Children Christened?
According to the Church of England, children can be christened at any age (including adults, sometimes), though they are usually christened as infants. “The actual time and date of the service is usually dictated by the availability of your church, and you’ll also want to check the availability of your chosen godparents,” Huggies Australia says, “As to the age of your baby – that really depends on the parents and, to some extent, the requirements of your church. Forty years ago it was very common to hold a christening just a couple of weeks after a baby was born. However there is a lot more variety in the age of children being christened these days. Some families will even hold a christening for several siblings, or cousins, at the same time.”
A common age, citing the Royal family as an example, is a few months after the child’s birth. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first son, Prince George, was christened at 3 months old, Princess Charlotte at 2 months old, and their youngest, Prince Louis, will be christened at 11 weeks old. The royal family’s christening, however, is especially significant, as the water used for the christenings is from the Jordan River.
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What Is a Christening Ceremony Like?
Christening ceremonies are a big rite of passage in the Catholic or Anglican church. Parents typically invite friends and family to the ceremony to see their child christened. Children often wear a special gown or outfit for the occasion.
The ceremony itself has a special order and passages for the clergy to read from. After the welcoming, the parents and godparents make certain promises to the child. Among these are to pray for the child, give them a good example, to take care of them, and to guide them in the faith.
Following that is the sign. According to the Church of England, “In many churches, a special oil may be used to make the sign of a cross on the child’s forehead. It’s a significant moment, which marks the child as belonging to God. The vicar will say: “...Christ claims you as his own. Receive the sign of the cross.”
They are then baptized: “Water which is blessed in the church’s font will be poured over the child’s head by the vicar. This is the child’s baptism. It’s a sign of a new beginning and becoming a part of God’s family.”
The child is then prayed for and welcomed into the church and he or she may receive a candle, representing their shining "as a light in the world."
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Why Do Parents Give a New Name at Baptism?
In the Catholic tradition, it is common to receive a new name at the time of baptism or christening. These names may come from people of the Bible, saints, or even angels.
“In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom strongly encouraged parents to choose for their children names of holy men and women known for their strength and virtue, in order that the children might look to them as role models,” Osmera writes, “Even earlier, St. Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 260) observed, “There are many of the same name as the Apostle John, who on account of their love for him, and because they admired and emulated him, and desired to be loved by the Lord as he was, took to themselves the same name, just as many of the children of the faithful are called Paul or Peter.”
Where Did the Idea of Giving a New Christian Name Originate?
Catholics get the idea of giving a new name at baptism from stories in the Bible. Citing examples in both the Old and New Testament, followers of God are sometimes given new names--Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, and Saul to Paul. Osmera writes, “In each of these cases, an important encounter with God led to the choosing of a name which reflected the solemnity of that event. When a child is baptized, he or she becomes a son or daughter of God the Father, a co-heir of Heaven through Christ the Son, and a sharer in the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
Children are given new names at baptism now to give them a reputation to live up to and to remind them that they are a part of the church and the family of God. Referencing Pope Benedict, Fr. Roger J. Landry writes, “The Christian name – in contrast to a non-Christian name – signifies that in baptism “every baptized person acquires the character of a son” and is “an unmistakable sign that the Holy Spirit gives birth to man ‘anew’ from the womb of the Church... Naming the child after a Christian saint or biblical hero is a concrete reminder for the child and everyone else that God is calling that child, like his or her Christian namesake, to holiness and heaven.”
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What Is the Significance of Godmothers and Godfathers?
When a child is christened, it is common for the family to designate a godmother and/or godfather to assist in caring for the child and raising them in the faith. These people are often family friends or relatives, and sometimes, parents.
“They’ll be people who you know you can trust and who’ll be there for your child to talk about the bigger questions in life; questions about faith, hope and love,” the Church of England explains, “Every child should have at least three godparents, two of the same sex and at least one of the opposite sex to your child. Although there is no official maximum number of godparents, three or four is usual...Because of the very special role they have in supporting your child’s faith journey, godparents must be baptized themselves. Ideally they should be confirmed too…”
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Why Christen Children?
Christening, though looked at the same as baptism, in the eyes of the Church of England, has a similar purpose to a baby dedication. The Church of England explains, “Your child is precious to you and precious to God. You want the very best for them, and so does God. You want them to make right choices in life, for themselves and for others. A christening is just the beginning of this and so much more.”
“Over the years to come, it’s a journey you’ll share together with your child by: Being there for your child to talk to about the bigger questions of life – questions about hope, faith and love. Praying for your child through the ups and downs of their faith journey. Showing them practically how to make those good choices in life. Helping them to learn more about their Christian faith, through their church and in other ways. So it’s a commitment to start as you mean to go on.”
Christenings share other similarities with baby dedications: during a christening, the children are prayed for by members of their family and family friends. The promises made in the ceremony to care for the child as he or she grows up, especially with respect to faith, are also similar to baby dedications.
One thing that is not shared among the two is the baptism itself.
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Should Infants Participate in Baptism?
Some protestant churches do not agree with the idea of infant baptism, such as credo-baptists. They believe that people should be baptized when they are old enough to understand, to make the decision to follow Christ, forsaking the world, that baptism is a sign of a commitment to follow Christ.
“... I’m convinced that no, infants should not be baptized, that baptism is for believers. Baptism reflects the newness of life that God has given to us in Christ. It’s a picture of the new birth and a picture of our hope in the resurrection of the body to come,” Mark Dever says.
"It's a sign of a new beginning and becoming a part of God's family," says the Church of England.
Where Did the Idea of Infant Baptism Originate?
In the Bible, there are instances in the New Testament where households were baptized. John Piper cites the baptism of the house of Stephanas, the house of Lydia, and the house of the jailer, as examples, while explaining the idea of infant baptism: “When we look at the New Testament, the closest thing to infant baptism that we find is the reference to three “households” being baptized.”
“...It is significant that in regard to the family of the Philippian jailer Luke reports in Acts 16:32, just before mentioning the baptism of the jailer’s household, “[Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house.” This seems to be Luke’s way of saying that hearing and believing the word is a prerequisite to baptism. The whole household heard the word and the whole household was baptized. In any case, there is no mention of infants in any of these three instances of household baptisms, and it is an argument from silence to say that there must have been small children. ”
Speaking specifically of others’ defense of infant baptism, Piper references Joachim Jeremias, quoting Oscar Cullman: “It is characteristic that Luke could report the matter thus. For by so doing he gives expression to the fact that ‘the solidarity of the family in baptism and not the individual decision of the single member’ was the decisive consideration...”
Infant Baptism and the New Covenant
Another common scripture noted, with regard to infant baptism, is Acts 2:38-39. It says, “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Dever explains, “They think that that means that the promises of God go down the generations and therefore, If believers have children, those children have the right to the sign of the covenant, like the children of the Israelites did in the Old Testament with the sign of circumcision."
In an earlier version of this article, we incorrectly stated that Protestant churches do not practice infant baptism. We've since edited the piece to reflect the differences between denominations within Protestantism. We apologize for the error.
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