But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
– Bob Dylan
Once when I was talking to a priest the topic turned to exorcisms. He nonchalantly told me that he had performed an exorcism just the other day. Taken aback, I hesitantly asked him what the circumstances were, not wanting to trespass on anything that wasn’t my business. He calmly replied that he performed exorcisms quite routinely, and then, seeing my incredulity, explained that the rite of baptism includes a prayer of exorcism. Before the actual sacrament is administered in the Latin Rite, the priest prays to Christ who was sent “to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness, and bring him into the splendour of your kingdom of light”.
I recalled this conversation last Sunday, when I was privileged to served as godfather at the baptism of the son of some old friends of mine. It was quite a wonderful ceremony—and my godson had the knack of crying only when he was at the front of the chapel while falling into a suitable silence when he approached the font. But one moment in the rite quite struck me. Before the Liturgy of the Word, the priest, parents and godparents trace the sign of the cross on the candidate’s forehead and the priest proclaims:
The Church of God welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Saviour by the sign of his cross.This is a powerful statement. The infant was not claimed for his parents (or for his godparents!), was not claimed for his country, was not claimed for his own autonomy. Rather, he was claimed for Christ. There is a deep paradox at the heart of this. After all, our natural inclination to such a statement might be to recoil and ask how anyone can “claim” anyone else. Does the child not get a say in the matter?
I think there are a couple of important aspects to understanding this claiming. The first is related to Bob Dylan’s famous lyrics. Like it or not, we all serve somebody or something. The rite of baptism reminds us that without God, we inevitably end up serving Satan. Jesus’s whole redemptive work was accomplished to set us free from servitude to the power of evil. Christ calls his Church to consistently reject the claim that darkness makes upon human beings. Hence, the rite of baptism is preceded by an exorcism. “This child”, the Church says, “cannot be claimed by the devil: he has been claimed by Christ.”
Along these lines, we all know deep down that this must be the ultimate claim. Even healthy natural relationships can lead to ruin if they do not eventually relinquish their claims. “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) I recall once after visiting with a family complimenting the mother on how good her children were. Her response was, “Oh, yes, aren’t they wonderful?” I think her response was exactly right. Rather than accept my implied invitation to treat the children as her own products that had been successfully reared, she saw them as not ultimately belonging to her. She realised, at least implicitly, that they belonged first to Christ.
There is a second aspect of the baptismal claim that deepens the first. What we might not realise immediately on listening to Dylan is that our choice is not between two equal masters. It is not merely a suit between to claimants, one who offers some things and another who offers certain others. It is a choice between serving a master who wishes our destruction and a master who wishes our freedom. To be claimed by Satan is to lose oneself: to be claimed by Christ is, paradoxically, to be set free from any inordinate claims and to become free. For all unconditional claims except for his eventually lead to perdition. We have all seen what happens when a husband demands complete subservience from his wife, or a mother from her child, or a boss from his workers, or a country from its soldiers. Only the Lord, who has everything to give and nothing to gain, has a claim that makes us free.