On my bookshelf at home I have a gift that I received when I was ordained: a slender green volume containing the ritual for baptism. On the back page, I've scribbled a small annotation, one that most casual readers would miss: "Margaret Flannigan. July 1, 2007. First baby baptized."
I'd been ordained just over a month. And I remember Margaret and that day so well. The nerves. The excitement. The dread. The anxiety. I remember worrying about whether the body mic I was wearing would work, and what would happen if it got wet. I worried endlessly about forgetting key parts of my brief homily. And when the time came, I remember taking a deep breath and swallowing hard and pouring the water over little Margaret Flannigan's pink head and being surprised that the water had splashed into my face, until I realized that the water wasn't from the font. I was blinking back my own tears. I've baptized more than a hundred babies since then. (I managed to douse fifteen just last Sunday.) But Margaret and I will always share a special bond, whether she realizes it or not. She was the first person I brought into the faith.
Most deacons can tell you similar stories. We find ourselves intersecting with people at critical pinpoints in their lives—baptisms, weddings, wakes. Moments of arrival and departure, beginnings and endings. But there's something about baptisms that sets them apart. The liturgy isn't the most elegant—frankly, it's a lot of the minister just talking, reading prayer after prayer after prayer—but it comes without all the theatrics of a wedding or the agonizing emotion of a wake. It is pure happiness, dabbed with oil and splashed with water. It's new. It's powerful—a shot of grace in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. It's raucous. And it's unpredictable—babies are as prone to laughing as they are to bawling when they get hit with the water—and from time to time, gazing into the faces of proud new parents, you can't help but glimpse their own wonder and joy. This is something, they seem to be thinking. Really something.
You see all kinds of people when you celebrate a lot of baptisms. Some parents are casual about it: Dad will wear jeans and a polo shirt and Mom will look drearily indifferent. Periodically, a godparent or sibling will stroll in chewing gum or wearing a baseball cap. But others embrace this sacrament as seriously and as fervently as cloistered nuns about to take the veil. One couple asked me if they had to go to confession before celebrating the sacrament. Another couple, after the baby was anointed with chrism, proudly pulled out an elegant lace handkerchief, to dab away the extra oil and save it. Some families provide their own candle. Others will make it a custom to dress the child in a gown worn by a grandparent.
I've been privileged to watch all this and more, and found myself blinded not only by my own tears, but also by the incessant pop of countless flashbulbs. I'm now a fixture in family albums that I'll never see, framed and poised on fireplace mantles in homes I'll never visit. It's a strange and wondrous existence. And it's something I wouldn't trade for the world. I've been blessed and awed to watch lives touched by grace. Not only that, I've been able to help spread a little of it around.
So thank you, Margaret Flannigan. And thank you to the dozens upon dozens of other happy, crying, restless, hope-filled young lives that have crossed my own. You've helped remind me that sacraments bring God's grace not only those who receive them but also, amazingly, to those who offer them.
4/5/2011 4:00:00 AM