A couple days ago, I wrote about a Catholic squabble taking place on social media and opined:
I’m not going to tell the pope (or any priest or deacon) that they shouldn’t baptize a baby whose parents haven’t checked off all the boxes. I’d rather see the baby claimed for Christ, the portal of grace created within the child, and hope that the parents who sought this baptism are also brought into conformity through that act of faith, however confused.
No, “portal of grace” doesn’t appear in the Catechism, but it’s how I’ve always thought of baptism; we might call the sacrament “The First Ephphetha” the first means by which we are opened to Christ and to the Christian life which, if it is lived fully and mindfully, must be a continual opening and re-opening, and then a widening to the Savior and to the workings of the Holy Spirit. When we chant of the psalmist “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” we do well to remember that the same is true for our hearts and our souls. A portal opened to grace must not be blocked.
I’m revisiting the topic for a couple of reasons: first, because we have just passed celebrating the Baptism of the Lord, which ended the season of Christmas and brought us into Ordinary Time, but sometimes I think we move too quickly away from these scene in Christ’s life, mostly because we don’t really “get” it. Why did the Son of the Most High and the Lamb of God need to be baptized by John? I heard an Episcopal priest once describe it this way: “John said, ‘who am I to baptize you; you should be baptizing me!’ And Jesus shrugged and said, “eh, it’s in the liturgy.”
It was a cute line and we all laughed, but it also served to minimize something profound, instructive, mysterious and ultimately glorious. As much as Christ’s Nativity was “for all the people”, so was his baptism, for in that action was the baptism of the entire planet and everything ever to grow and live and be upon it. The entire earth became opened to the salvific action of Christ, through his baptismal immersion in the water.
We’ve talked about this before in this blog, but think of it. The water in your glass, the water in our oceans, the water you bathe your children in, the water that becomes vapor, collected in the clouds and then delivered back to us in the rain, is the same water than has been here from the very beginning — the very same water spoken of in Genesis, where “God’s spirit moved upon the face of the waters.” With his baptism, God no longer moved upon the face of the water, he was immersed within it — and not thoughtlessly, as a child playing in a river, but God-mindfully; with an intention to save. The whole body of Christ Jesus, intentionally submerged by John (by Christ’s command), enhanced and perhaps exceeded creation; rather than God’s spirit moving upon the face of things, God Incarnate — Emmanu-el — sanctified the water with his very flesh. And the water flowed, and it fed streams and animals and plants, and it rose, and it fell and it renewed the face of the earth in the most mystical of ways, because it was now, and forever more, holy water — literally touched by God, with an intention full of love and mercy. God particles, multiplied into infinity, and all around us, contained in all that grows and flows.
Here is what the Byzantine liturgy says of this:
. . .today through the presence of the Lord the waters of the Jordan River are changed into remedies; today the whole universe is refreshed with mystical streams; today the sins of mankind are blotted out by the waters of the Jordan River; today paradise has been opened to mankind, and the Sun of righteousness has shone upon us; today we escape from darkness, and, through the light of the knowledge of God, we are illumined; today the darkness of the world vanishes with the appearing of our God; today the whole creation is brightened from on high; today errors are cancelled, and a way of salvation is prepared for us by the coming of the Lord; today the Lord comes to be baptized so that mankind may be lifted up; today the one who never has to bow inclines himself before his servant so that he may release our chains; today we have acquired the kingdom of heaven; indeed, the kingdom of heaven that has no end. . .And the clouds give voice, and are filled with awe by the one who is coming, Light of light, true God of true God, the one who, in the Jordan has drowned the death of sin, the thorn of error, and the bond of Hades, and granted the baptism of salvation to the world. (via the invaluable Magnificat Magazine)
Think of it the next time you are walking amid the trees, and wondering why you feel so euphoric; from the ground, the trees have been fed by this water; they breathe with the air, through which this water has passed. They share God-particles, then, with the very sweat on your brow; the water in your bottle. Let that thought be the foundation of your prayer of thanksgiving.
Think of it the next time you put a compress to a feverish brow: the water has been made holy by Christ. Let that form the basis of your prayer of supplication.
Baptism: once the portal of grace is created — once this First Ephphetha has been called forth and we are opened — who is to say what God will do with that entrance-way, or how miraculously he will work his will, in his own way, which is not our way; in his own time, which is not a chronology that aligns with our mortal clocks or calenders, or our perspectives.
And that brings me to the second reason for revisiting this sacrament, and the question of whether the baby of an “irregularly wed” couple ought to have been baptized by a pope: I can’t help but marvel at this title: My wife and I are atheists, but our daughter wants to be baptised Catholic.
For decades, god (sic) and religion have played no part in my life. I was baptised as a baby, but didn’t make it as far as first communion. That may officially make me a Catholic in the broadest sense, but if it does, I’m one who’s not so much “lapsed” as “stalled before I started”. [. . .] I had no choice. Not that it matters. I was baptised. Other than talking about it here, it has had almost no impact on my life. End of story.
Our little girl, however, has made a life-defining decision by herself. I couldn’t be more proud of her. But I cannot deny that what she said to my wife and I stopped us briefly in our slightly smug, religiously disinterested, bleeding-heart liberal tracks.
What courage had it taken for her to tell us what she wanted? It was clear that our brave, sweet daughter had thought about her faith long and hard. Looking back, we realised we had regularly discussed our differing beliefs. Our daughter brought us Genesis. We gave her the Michael Bay-friendly Big Bang. She brought us the Nativity and peace and goodwill at Christmas. We gave her family, friends and good food. She brought us the crucifixion. We gave her the Easter Bunny. She brought us heaven, god and an afterlife. We gave her 21st-century life and a brief future as worm fodder.
After all that – and in spite of our gentle antipathy to god and creation – she still had the courage of her convictions to say to both of us, to our faces and again in front of the priest, that our world view isn’t enough for her. She believes. She wants to be baptised and she wants to be Catholic.
I just hope that, the next time she faces a life-defining decision, she remembers this time when she told us she had faith in something we don’t. And we believed in her.
Bearing in mind that God’s ways are not our ways; God’s purpose is not always to our understanding; God’s view of time is nothing like ours — who is to say that the portal of grace opened within this man, even though it was never fed or broadened, did not influence many of those life decisions that ultimately brought his family and his daughter to this point? And who would dare say that God is “done” with him? Who would place a wager against the notion that twenty years from now the grace of that early, shrugged off baptism is not still doing the work it was intended for, and claiming this man, and perhaps his whole family, for Christ?
Before such mystery how can any of us, no matter how well we believe we understand a sacrament from the legalistic, limited, human way we understand anything — and no matter how sincerely we believe we are “protecting” the Church — wish to deny baptism to anyone?
And how much pride must our souls carry, anyway — and our puny, wounded, imperfect and idolatrous hearts, in need of daily re-opening, daily turning, daily saving — to think that without our hyper-vigilance, Christ would let his Bride wither and fade, as though she were merely natural and earthly, like any nation or government?
Nothing compelled out of us is worth anything to God; our obedience is valuable when it is wrought of our whole-hearted willingness to love him, adore him, seek unity with him, serve him. That is why the life of faith must balance legalism with humility, justice with mercy. It all must balance, or it becomes about something other than Truth. Look at your crucifix; that balance is always found in the wingspan of Christ.
UPDATE: Elizabeth Duffy has a really good post on all of this