A Sacrament of Blessing and Promise
|PAINTING BY JACK GARNIER|
By Rich Brown
The scene is familiar to just about everybody in the Community of Christ. Parents bring their child to the front of the sanctuary during a worship service, often accompanied by the child’s older siblings. Two elders stand ready to officiate. One takes the child in his or her arms, if it is an infant, while the other places hands on the child to offer a prayer of blessing. Quite often these days, one or both elders are grandparents of the child.
The blessing prayer usually centers on guidance and nurture to be provided by parents and faith community, and divine
protection throughout the child’s lifetime. At prayer’s end, the baby is handed back to proud parents (perhaps relieved
their child has not cried), and the worship service continues. After the service concludes, the extended family, along with friends and officiating ministers, often gather for photos to remember such an important occasion.
Of all eight sacraments in the Community of Christ, the blessing of children is easily the most family oriented. It is an important rite of passage, similar to the practices of other denominations that christen or baptize infants. Yet the sacrament of blessing is not a part of the baptismal sacrament or entrance into our faith community. It is, however, the sacrament most likely to attract nonmember friends to the church, and, as such, can be an important evangelism opportunity. Care should be taken to explain the significance of this sacrament for the child, parents, extended family, and congregation.
This sacrament holds a unique place in the Community of Christ. Its practice and theological basis arise from direction found in all three books of sacred scripture. The church was admonished in 1830 as follows:
Every member of the church of Christ having children, is to bring them unto the elders before the church, who are to lay their hands upon them in the name of Jesus Christ, and bless them in his name.—Doctrine and Covenants 17:19
In the Book of Mormon account, Jesus illustrated the love and concern he had for children:
And when he said these words, he wept, and the multitude bore record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them and prayed to the Father for them.—III Nephi 8:23
The New Testament offers an extensive rationale. Mark’s Gospel, in particular, shares the story of Jesus chastising his disciples for treating children as a nuisance who should be kept at a distance:
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.—Mark 10:13–16 NRSV
Parallel accounts can be found in Matthew chapter 19 and Luke chapter 18. One of the most interesting aspects of these accounts is the way Jesus tied his act of blessing children to the promised kingdom of God.
The key word for Mark is “receive”; the peaceable kingdom is tied not merely to the innocence or naiveté of children. Rather, it comes as grace, especially to those on the margins of society who are considered either unimportant or unworthy. Such an understanding reflects the coming of Jesus himself. When God sent a savior/messiah to the world, it was as a baby born to humble parents in the most unexpected of circumstances: the manger of a stable in the tiny and remote town of Bethlehem, far from Rome, the center of worldly power and prestige.
The birth of Jesus marked the inauguration of God’s promised kingdom on earth, as foretold by prophets throughout Israel’s history. The full revelation and establishment of that kingdom is yet to be, of course. But with every child who is brought forward in the church to be blessed in the name of Jesus Christ, that peaceable kingdom is proclaimed anew and brought one small step closer to fruition.
There are sound reasons why the Community of Christ does not baptize children younger than eight, considered as the “age of accountability.” This theological position has a clear scriptural basis. According to Doctrine and Covenants 28:13a, “…little children are redeemed from the foundation of the world, through mine Only Begotten; wherefore they cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me.”
The most extensive teaching on this subject is found in the Book of Mormon, especially in Moroni 8:5–29. The baptism of little children is referred to as a “gross error” which should be “removed from among you”:
Little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me.—vs. 9
Teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall be saved with their little children; and their little children need no repentance, neither baptism.—vs. 11
Little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world.—vs. 13
All children are alike to me; wherefore I love little children with a perfect love; and they are all alike, and partakers of salvation.—vs. 18
Little children cannot repent;…they are all alive in [God] because of his mercy.—vs. 20
All little children are alive in Christ.—vs. 25
The unique teachings offered in the Inspired Version (Joseph Smith’s emendations of the King James translation of the Bible) add significantly to our theological understanding. This is particularly true with a portion of the long section on the life and teachings of Enoch inserted in Genesis 5 (KJV):
And the Lord said unto Adam, Behold, I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the garden of Eden. Hence came the saying abroad among the people, that the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children, for they are whole from the foundation of the world.—Genesis 6:55–56 IV
The words of scripture writers offer comfort, direction, and understanding. Yet it is obvious that children are born into an imperfect world, one filled with inequality, injustice, suffering, and misfortune. It is easy to forget that children are not simply smaller versions of adults. They need nurture, love, disciplined guidance, and moral direction. Their first source should be their parents. How fortunate are the children born to loving parents within a nurturing faith community. But, of course, that is not always the case.
The sacrament of blessing can provide both a literal and symbolic tipping point in a young child’s life. That is not always
understood at the time of blessing and, in fact, it may take years or even a lifetime for a testimony of further blessings.
I cannot recall the exact words of blessing for either of my children more than twenty years ago. But in hindsight I can now see the movement of the Spirit in our family’s life, connected in a powerful way with the observances of this sacrament.
Two days after my son was blessed on an Easter Sunday, my father died from a heart attack. My infant daughter was blessed about a month after I lost my job, and my wife and I dealt with my job uncertainty for more than a year. Those events may well have been coincidental; the blessings of the Spirit were not.
Little children are holy and whole in the sight of God. We who refer to ourselves as the body of Christ and the people of God bear a responsibility to nurture them, to raise up new generations of disciples of Jesus. The sacrament of blessing of children is an ideal way to begin.