Bowermaster’s Adventures: Baptism by waves

I hadn’t thought much about baptism since the last time I watched “The Godfather” until I saw a photo a couple weeks ago of 29 Marines (the Ohio-based 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment) on the verge of setting off for Afghanistan being given full rites in the Pacific Ocean near Camp Pendleton.

Which made me wonder exactly how many people use the ocean for baptism … and where did the notion of being plunged underwater to affirm ones Christian beliefs come from anyway?

Marines interviewed said they believed the rite would help them “perform our job the way we need to in a very challenging environment” and bring them home safely. Initially I thought their Sunday morning full-submersions — administered by the battalion’s chaplain and part of Operation Sword of the Spirit, a program meant to prepare the battalion for duty in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province — was unusual. (Other Marines weren’t not so pleased by the very public baptisms, suggesting that the images gave the Taliban spin-masters too-easy p.r. photos suggesting that the U.S. truly is engaged in some kind of Holy War.)

But the almighty Google proved that baptism by waves is still common. Apparently many times a week somewhere along the edge of the country – from Ocean Grove and Pacific Palisades in California to the sand beaches of Florida and New Jersey – Christians, both adults and children, walk voluntarily into the sea to have their beliefs affirmed.
Typical mass-baptism announcements are abundant and include the Where (Pier Ave and the Strand, Hermosa Beach); the Date (July 11, 2010); the Time (3 p.m.), the Features (kids, open to all, volunteer) and Dress Code (ladies, wear dark t-shirt and shorts over your swim suit; guys, please wear a t-shirt and swim trunks).

Just a few weeks ago the fifth-annual Bridgefest in Old Bridge, NJ, kicked off with a free surfing clinic and closed with an appearance by an American Idol contestant (Mandisa?!?), but centered on a “massive ocean baptism with hundreds dedicating their lives to Christ.”

The practice is popular enough that it now has its own celebratory pop tune, (“The full immersion ocean water baptism by sea, Welcomin’ the people who are new to the family, People singin’ praises as they watch from the harbor wall …”).

And advice columns like this from Mrzboopie, counseling an 18-year-old wondering if she should go ahead and just do it. Yes, affirmed Mrzboopie: “The assistant pastor who was with me said a prayer and then I held my nose as he quickly dunked me under the water, then it was all done and everyone was clapping and praising God and all that.”

Ocean baptisms are hardly limited to the U.S. of A.; a recent photo of 700 Mozambiquans – among the poorest people on the planet — lined up in pairs to have their sins cleansed, dressed in tattered blue jean shorts and colorful dresses.
Early interpretations of the New Testament suggest a “water-rite for the purpose of purification, washing and cleansing of vessels or of the body” is a good thing. Despite its popularity there is still debate among Christians as to where the practice originated and about some of its hows and whys.

For example, must you be fully immersed for it to take, or will a partial submersion do? Will a simple sprinkling of water on the head (known as aspersion) suffice? Or must it be affusion (pouring water over the head)?

Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Sainters all belief total immersion is the only way to go, “just as Jesus Christ was baptized … a person’s whole body should be put under the water momentarily.”

Just where Jesus stood on the whole ablution thing is still a matter of debate among Biblical scholars. That he was baptized (in the River Jordan, by John the Baptist) is not contended. But his take on the necessity of baptism sparks debate; apparently Jesus himself never baptized anyone.

Water plays an important role in other religions, too. Sikhs are known to drink water from an iron bowl for forgiveness. Muslims are encouraged to wash before prayer. But the Quakers have disavowed the practice of baptism, encouraging followers to find redemption inside, not from outside sources.

As for those Marines heading off for Afghanistan, any extra talisman is probably a good thing. Forty-six Marines and two Navy corpsmen of the same battalion were killed in Iraq, 14 on a single day.

[flickr image via Jesse Gardner]