Some emerge from the water laughing and smiling. Others shed tears.
But whatever their reaction may be, one thing is always the same.
Baptism is a deeply spiritual, emotional and reverential experience for those who take the plunge.
“When they come out of the water, they feel brand new… radiant, fresh and forgiven,” said Pastor Ray Vargas, who has ministered at Liberty Church in Victoria for the past 14 years.
At the nondenominational Liberty Church, baptisms carry powerful symbolism and serve as an opportunity for personal spiritual renewal. Sometimes, the church’s annual baptisms are conducted in natural bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico or Guadalupe River. Other times, like this year’s upcoming event on Aug. 21, the services are held using a pragmatic horse through. Whatever the source of water, the event is beautiful, Vargas said.
“It is a reverential thing. It is very pious. It is very dignified,” Vargas said. “It symbolizes something buried in us. Something very benevolent, something very lovely.”
With about 100 people attending any given Sunday service, Vargas schedules about a dozen or so people for the church’s baptismal service each year. But he said it’s hardly unusual at public services for dozens of bystanders and passersby to see the events, stop and ask him to baptize them, as well, he said.
That’s because deep in the heart of every human, he said, is an innate desire for rebirth.
“Water baptism is a complete conviction of the heart,” Vargas said. “He washes you clean. It is a washing of the word.”
Baptism in modern times can be traced to the Book of Matthew, where John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River, Vargas said.
Although the practice has biblical roots, it also carries a powerful symbolism, paralleling the cleansing power of salvation found in Jesus, he said.
Members of Liberty Church emerge from the water physically cleansed and refreshed. They are also spiritually renewed, he said, by the new life and hope they find in Christ’s love.
Vargas said often a baptism serves as the first step on a long spiritual journey. The pastor recalled once baptizing a self-proclaimed Satanist who years later is continuing a new life as a follower of Christ. Often, baptism carries an extra special meaning for those who have long suffered.
“God is a personal god. He loves you so much that it can wash away your sorrows and your angers,” Vargas said. “It can give you a new life. Water baptism symbolizes that.”
A family event
At Faith Family Church in Victoria, baptisms happen just about every month with as many as 30 or so people dedicating or rededicating their lives to Christ, said Amy Duffley, a Faith Family Church member of 42 years and community life director at the church.
The baptisms are often in each of the church’s Sunday services in a special baptismal pool inside the church.
At Faith Family, baptisms are a family event involving both the faithful’s biological and church families.
They are personal but also immensely joyful events shared by the rest of the church, she said.
Although the baptismal pool is partitioned by a curtain from the church’s sanctuary, those attending the service watch and listen to a broadcast displayed on screens during services.
During baptisms, fists are pumped in the air, cheers erupt throughout the congregation and music is played by the church’s worship band.
“Everyone is cheering like you would think it is a football game,” Duffley said.
Afterward, photos are taken in front of a special backdrop for participants to remember the moment. They also receive a special T-shirt.
Baptisms at Faith Family follow a personal decision to follow Christ. And the baptism itself is an outward display of that inner decision.
“It’s an outward symbol of an inward heart action,” she said. “When you accept Jesus Christ as your savior and as your Lord… your sins are washed away and you become new. It’s like a total restart. It’s something that shows publicly that you are sincere in becoming a Christ follower.”
Rituals are important, said Victoria Diocese Bishop Brendan Cahill. They help people begin to comprehend the unknowable, infinite mystery of God.
“It communicates the supernatural reality,” Cahill said of baptism, adding, “The mystery is that God gave his only son for the world. It’s beyond rationality… It’s beyond expression of words.”
Unlike many of their Protestant brothers and sisters, Catholics often baptize infants and small children, he said.
“We want God’s grace and Jesus Christ to be with that child from the very beginning,” the bishop said.
Although full-body immersions do happen in Catholic churches, baptisms are more often conducted with a handful or three of water or even as little as a few drops. For example, Catholic nurses will sometimes carry eyedroppers of holy water to baptize infants in hospital neonatal units.
“It means the same thing,” Cahill said. “You get the full effect.”
When that happens, the parents or another adult will take responsibility for giving the child a solid spiritual foundation.
That being said, there are plenty of Catholics who are baptized as adults.
Many of those people come to Catholicism from other Christian denominations, and when that happens, their prior baptisms are honored.
Any Catholics older than the age of 7 undergo a lengthy preparation leading up to the baptism in part because they need to understand the full spiritual reality behind baptism, Cahill said.
But when adults do make the decision to be baptized, there’s something especially beautiful about that, he said.
“One of the greatest senses of joy we experience each year is an adult being baptized,” Cahill said.