Baptismal Promises and Automobility

I tend to waver between Baptism and Eucharist as my favorite sacraments (I’m sure the very notion of a “favorite” sacrament is rather adolescent and probably heretical, but alas…). Today, on the final Sunday of advent, a family in our congregation joined the long heritage of those presenting their child for baptism, sealing the promises of the covenant. An important part of the liturgy is not only the promises that the parents make to care for their child and raise him in the faith, but also the promises that the congregation makes to be the family of God to these parents and for this child. Turning to the congregation, the minister asks us whether we will promise to care for, nurture, instruct and support the child and his parent, to be a community that provides Christian instruction and formation, encouraging him to become a disciple of Jesus and a citizen of the kingdom, to which we respond: “We do, God helping us.”

The congregational vow is a reminder that the nuclear family is insufficient for the formation of faith-full children–that the tiny enclaves of our “private” homes can’t bear the weight of what the vocation of parenting calls us to do. Thus the baptismal vows are one of those glimmers in the church’s life where we actually renounce the American gospel of individualism and self-sufficiency, of so-called “family values.”

But I’ve been wondering of late: what do such promises mean in a culture of automobility and transience? What does it mean for us to promise to raise and nurture this infant when, because of our market-driven habits, either he or we will likely have moved on to “bigger and better” things before he’s in 10th-grade catechism class? What is the traction of a vow for a people that tend to commercial nomadism?

I suppose, at the very least, that the catholicity of the church should mean we assume the promises made by our brothers and sisters in Denver or Pella, in St. Catherine’s or London. Certainly. But it’s not quite the same as sticking around to see this young baby, baptized today, emerge as a disciple of Jesus right here in the neighborhood. What if we started thinking of baptismal promises as real estate anchors–that our commitments to care for a community of children might trump our other “opportunities?”