TEMPLE BAPTISMS – A REFLECTION
It was the combined opening priesthood meeting when the announcment was made that the youth in our ward would be going to the temple in two days to do baptisms for the dead. They needed some volunteers from the Melchizedik Priesthood holders to help with the ordinances.
I used to be the Young Men’s president, so I know how hard it is to get reliable volunteers. I used to ask for two more men than we actually needed because someone always backed out at the last second. Despite me saying explicitly, “If you can’t make it, you have to find a replacement,” someone always backed out and didn’t find a replacement; it drove me nuts. I raised my hand to volunteer. My oldest daughter had just turned twelve a few weeks back and this would be her first time ever being in an LDS temple. About an hour before we left, my wife found out that she could come and help too. It would be good to have the first and second loves of my life there.
Since it had been four years since my daughter had been baptised, we did a couple of practice runs in the family room. “It will be easier if you bend your knees and squat down, like you are sitting on a chair,” I told her. I thought it would be neat to baptize my daughter at the temple, but I didn’t think it was my place to ask the bishop. A little before we left, I got a text from my bishop:
“Would you like to baptize Milayna tonight? If so, bring a change of garments.”
I just lit up!! I told Milayna and she was happy, but not nearly as excited as I.
I tried to remember the first time I went with the youth in my ward to do batisms at the temple. I was twelve years old and still living in East San Jose. We weren’t the most reverent group of boys. That is putting it too kindly. We were irreverent. I can remember sitting in a waiting area that we accessed through a side door of the Oakland Temple. The room was pretty and I have some kind of recollection of the chandeliers and some recolection of eating at the cafeteriea at the temple, but not much beyond that. I don’t remember being particularly touched by the feeling that I was doing anything of super importance, even though I was hoping for such a confirmation.
Our temple in Medord, Oregon (technically it is in Central Point) is one of the newer, smaller temples. We came in, took our shoes off, and waited a bit. I looked over at my daughter, Milayna, sitting with some of her friends and I wondered what she was thinking. Later that night we would pick up our youngest daughter from Grandpa and Grandma’s. On the drive home the youngest asked, “Milayna, sooo…what did you think? Was it pretty inside?”
“Yes, it was very pretty inside,” responded Milayna.
“Was it as pretty as the casino we stayed in?”
“It was cleaner,” said Milayna laughing.
After we changed into the baptismal clothes, I listened and reflected as a member of the Temple Presidency spoke briefly to our youth. As he did I looked down at the twelve oxen that support the baptismal font. Symbolism is an interesting thing, isn’t it?
The power of a symbol is in the meaning that is beyond what the actual object actually is. However, it is weird how we will take a symbol and say, “It means such and such,” as if that is the only interpretation that symbol can have. With the twelve oxen, we are told that they represent the twelve tribes of Israel. But that night they meant something different.
My mind went back to what was being said. Holding two names in his hand, the member of the Temple Presidency said, “Tonight these two names will be spoken again. It will be the first time in over one hundred years that their names will be said out loud.”
Mormonism has been accused of “being legalistic.” That is, certain ordinances are needed to get into heaven and not only that, those ordinances have to be done in a very particular way; the entire body (including hair that might float to the top) must be totally submerged with baptism; the Sacramental prayer has to be said perfectly, etc. The idea of being baptized for a dead ancestor takes the legalistic criticism to a whole new level.
Just think about it. The world population is presently 7.2 billion and is expected to increase by another 1 billion by 2025.1 Some have estimated that there have been 108 billion births, “since the dawn of mankind”.2 Let’s do the math here. Presently the Church claims a membership of 15 million people. Even if all those members could do temple work, that would only be .2% of the world population doing temple work. Apostle George A. Smith recognized the mathematical problem when he said:
“…We need not expect to do this vast work for the dead in a short time. I expect it will take at least a thousand years.”3
Okay, but we have a way out of this math conundrum. Brigham Young said:
“Who will possess the Earth and all its fulness? Will it not be those whom the Lord has reserved to this honor? And they will come upon Mount Zion as saviors to labor through the Millennium to save others….
And through the Millennium, the thousand years that the people will love and serve God, we will build temples and officiate therein for those who have slept for hundreds and thousands of years—those who would have received the truth if they had had the opportunity; and we will bring them up, and form the chain entire, back to Adam….
As I have frequently told you, that is the work of the Millennium. It is the work that has to be performed by the seed of Abraham, the chosen seed, the royal seed, the blessed of the Lord, those the Lord made covenants with. They will step forth, and save every son and daughter of Adam who will receive salvation here on the earth; and all the spirits in the spirit world will be preached to, conversed with, and the principles of salvation carried to them, that they may have the privilege of receiving the Gospel; and they will have plenty of children here on the earth to officiate for them in those ordinances of the Gospel that pertain to the flesh.”4
“We trust in God. I reckon he will fight our battles and we will be baptized for and in behalf of the human family during a thousand years; and we will have hundreds of temples and thousands of men and women officiating therein for those who have fallen asleep, without having had the privilege of hearing and obeying the Gospel, that they may be brought forth and have a glorious resurrection, and enjoy the kingdom which God has prepared for them. The Devil will fight hard to hinder us, and we shall not take an inch of ground except by obedience to the power of, and faith in, the Gospel of the Son of God. The whole world is opposed to this doctrine. But is there any harm in it? If they could only see it as it is in the Lord, they would rejoice in it, and instead of fighting it, they would praise God for having revealed so glorious a doctrine.”5
“And we will have revelations to know our forefathers clear back to Father Adam and Mother Eve, and we will enter into the temples of God and officiate for them. Then man will be sealed to man until the chain is made perfect back to Adam, so that there will be a perfect chain of priesthood from Adam to the winding-up scene. This will be the work of the Latter-day Saints in the Millennium.”6
“As I have frequently told you, that [temple work for the dead] is the work of the Mellennium…”7
So, since Mormons are such a small drop in the bucket of the world population and much of the work that will be done during the Millenium is temple work, why bother now?
My daughter came down into the font. I held my hand out and she grabbed it. I pointed out the name of the person, for whom she was being baptized, on the screen; she nodded. I then grabbed her right wrist and she grabbed by left wrist with her left hand. I raised my right arm up to the square.
“Sister Barker, having been commisioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of….” I said a name that had not been uttered in over one hundred years.
At that moment I reflected on a book I’ve been reading from a non-LDS scholar:
“Holy sites and sanctuaries are believed to be situated at the center of the world; temples are replicas of the cosmic mountain and hence constitute the pre-eminent “link” between earth and heaven; the foundations of temples descend deep into the lower regions…From one point of view, the lower regions can be homologized to the unknown and desert regions that surround the inhabited territory; the underworld, over which our cosmos is firmly established, corresponds to the chaos that extends to its frontiers.”8
At that moment I realized that the font that Milayna and I were standing in, as well as the names I was reading reached back, “to the underworld” – to those that have died. The oxen on which the font rested, for me at that moment, didn’t symbolize only the twelve tribes of Israel, but represented all the great matriarchs and patriarchs that lived before us. They represented those that had died; my father; my grandparents. We were standing on their shoulders. Holding onto my twelve year old daughter represented the future. She in her white clothes, represented Heaven at that moment. There in that font, it all came together.
The work we do is less for those that have passed on and is more for us. There is something powerful in saying a person’s name that has not been uttered in many, many years. It is a way that we can do the innerwork. It is a way to venerate those that have gone before us. That font, at that moment, with my daughter and I standing in it, linked the past, the present and the future.
I looked up and saw my wife sitting. I wished, and I know she wished, that she could participate more than just being a supportive onlooker.
“And the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.”(Doctrine and Covenants 130:2)
The love I have for my wife is intense. It is intimate. The love I have for my daughters is intense. It is also intimate, but it is different. Not less, just different. It’s a love that binds me to them. Religion and ligament share the same root, ligre – to tie, to bind, to fasten.9 It’s an interesting thing to ponder. Perhaps Joseph was referring to the binding of religion when he said:
“…the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between fathers (ahem, and mothers) and the children, upon some subject or other – and behold what is that subject? It is the baptism for the dead. For we without them cannot be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also…”10
It is religion that somehow binds me to my children and my wife. I imagine that the love I will have in the afterlife will in some way be a compound of the different types of love I have for my wife and my daughters. It will be more intense. It is religion that somehow binds me to the other teenagers that I’ve known since they have been four years old, that came up out of that water. It is religion that somehow binds me to their parents, to my bishop and his family, to my parents. I don’t take a literal view to all of this, simply because I don’t know what happens after death and frankly, there are some logical problems with taking a literal view. My metaphorical view is more beautiful I think. Our religion binds to the past (lower regions) and into the future (Heaven). That is the great beauty Joseph’s theology. We are making communities. That is the great beauty of Mormonism. That is the great beauty of God.
When all the ordinance work had been done and everyone was dried off our bishop spoke. He spoke about how the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a check list. It’s supposed to change us. I mananged to catch the eye of Milayana. I winked and she winked back. I rubbed my beard and she mimicked me as she rubbed her chin between her fingers and thumb. I then found myself rubbing my mustache with my index finger and then dragging it to the center of my upper lip, in one quick motion. I stopped. That was the exact motion that my dad (now deceased) would do when he had a mustache.
1U.S State Department. Click here to read.
2Population Reference Bureau. Click here to read.
3George A. Smith quoted in “Christmas Assembly in St. George,” Millenial Star 37, no. 5 (February 2, 1875); 66 – I found the quote in Brian Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volume 3: Theology, pg. 94.
4 Discourses of Brigham Young, pg. 403.
5 Discourses of Brigham Young, pg. 401. I am indebted to my friend and permablogger, Russell Stevenson for finding these quotes for me.
7Brigham Young, Decemer 3, 1854, Journal of Discourses, 2:138. Found in Brian Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volume 3: Theology, pg. 100.
6 Journal of Discourses 15:138-139, August 24, 1872.
8 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, The Nature of Religion: The significance of religous myth, symbolism, and ritual within life and culture, pages 39 & 42.
9 Click here for definition of religion.
10Doctrine and Covenants 128:18