Baptism and what it means

Following a spate of celebrity baptisms, we unpack the history and symbolism of this ancient practice and meet a man who was baptised in prison.

David and Victoria Beckham’s two youngest children were baptised at a church near their Cotswold home last December.

Victoria posted a picture of Harper, eight, and Cruz, 14, and wrote: ‘Proudest of days today watching Harper and Cruz being baptized in front of our friends and family. So much to be grateful for x With love, VB x I love u David Beckham.’

The celebrity couple’s older children, Brooklyn and Romeo, were baptised in 2004.

Showbiz celebrity Kim Kardashian and her youngest children Saint, three, Chicago, 20 months, and baby Psalm, were baptised last October in Armenia’s main cathedral while on a trip to her ancestral homeland. Kim shared photos from the baptism on her Instagram page, saying: ‘So blessed to have been baptized along with my babies.’

Four years ago, Kim and husband Kanye West took their daughter North to Jerusalem to have her baptised.

Easter links

Baptism is an ancient practice, often taking place at Easter, the time of year when Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ about 2000 years ago in the Middle East. Baptism imitates Christ being lowering into the grave and rising again. When new Christians are lowered into water for baptism, it is a graphic enactment of the very same thing: a new birth into a new life as a follower of Jesus.

Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God and is a first personal step in response to God’s love. It is a celebration of what God has done for us in Christ; a time to make serious promises and to declare faith in Christ.

Baptism (sometimes called christening when children are involved) can mean being sprinkled with water or total immersion in it. Both symbolise past wrongdoings being washed away – dying to all that has passed before – and rising to start a fresh new life with God. And that new life includes being part of God’s family, the Church. People of all ages can be baptised, from babies to the elderly.

Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan as an adult, although he had done nothing wrong, so had no need for a fresh start. You can read about his baptism in three Bible books – Matthew, Mark and Luke – which were written in the first century. Eye-witnesses reported: ‘As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened. Jesus saw the Spirit of God coming down on him like a dove. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, and I love him. I am very pleased with him.”’

Christians have been baptised all around the world for the past 2,000 years. Some baptisms take place in churches using a small pool or a font – often a stone basin placed near the door of the church. Baptisms also take place in the sea, in temporary pools outside cathedrals and even in prison wheelie-bins.

As in many churches today, in the ancient church, adults who wanted to become Christians, prepared for baptism by learning what it means to be followers of Jesus. This wasn’t a theoretical course, but practical mentoring on how to live as Christians, following Jesus’ great commandment to love one another. They learned to pray, to live generously and to worship God wholeheartedly.

The final and most intensive period of preparation for baptism took place during the 40 days leading up to Easter, known as Lent. The whole church joined the new Christians preparing for Easter, with every Christian remembering that they too had once taken this journey from the old life to the new.

Baptised in a wheelie-bin!

Colin Garnett’s baptism was different from most people’s experience. He was baptised in prison in an industrial waste bin full of water.

Telling his story for the book 40 Stories of Hope, he described what led to his time in prison. He was a drug addict and says, ‘When I first started injecting, I had a deep-seated fear that it could kill me if I was not careful. Towards the end of my addiction, 12 years later, the idea of it killing me had become really attractive.

‘When the police burst into my house in November 1989, I felt a deep sense of relief. I was glad to see them. For a split second I felt a raging urge to escape out of the bedroom window and across the gardens, simply because of the thought of custody without one last hit. But then I knew – if I run now, I’ll have to run again tomorrow.

‘I was arrested on suspicion of burglary and immediately admitted to it – I wanted to erase all suspicion just in case they didn’t have enough evidence and I would be back on the street that same day. When I eventually stood before the judge at Manchester Crown Court in August 1990, within 30 seconds of being told “You will go to prison for 30 months” I was thinking “and then what? Back to the addiction?” I had not yet reached my mid-30s and my life was as good as over.

‘Ten months later, I was in solitary confinement when the screw came to tell me my parole had been refused. In the solitude of that cell, I sobbed and sobbed. Everything was just dark. With six months left to serve I was starting to feel anxious about my release. That was the only reason I went to the chapel service … I could see I would die at the end of a syringe.

‘When the Pastor read from Romans 7:15-25 on that June evening of 1993 in that prison chapel, I just knew that I did not know Jesus on a personal level.’

The Bible book of Romans, written by Paul, one of Jesus’ first followers, says: ‘What a terrible failure I am! Who will save me from this sin that brings death to my body? I give thanks to God who saves me. He saves me through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

Colin says, ‘I saw the severity of being lost for eternity because my self-hatred would not let me turn to God for forgiveness. Then came the challenge: “Does anyone feel the need to receive Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour?”

‘Within minutes I was kneeling in an improvised baptismal – an industrial waste bin full of water – being baptised. Joy just flooded my soul! Freedom engulfed me. I somehow knew “I’ve born again.”

‘Life was instantly seasoned by hope, significance, connection, direction, meaning and purpose. It was as instantaneous as that – I knew that Jesus had entered me and released from the chains of misery and death.’

‘I’ve been clean and sober now for more than 24 years.’