We pulled into the parking lot of the church at 9:30AM last Sunday, a full half hour before the start of the service. It had been imperative that we arrive on time because our niece, Emily Alice, was going to be baptized and my wife, Maria, was the Godmother. Dan’s lead foot and the vacant roads had allowed us to make great time even with our brief pit-stop at a Dunkin Donuts.
The rolling hills of Hunterdon County, NJ could be seen off to one side of the small, white, Reformed Church as we entered. The inside of the church was elegant in its simplicity and the distinct smell of the wooden pews lingered in the air. Tall sets of clear windows lined the interior along both sides of the nave and the front of the church boasted an altar with two large candles, a section to the left side for the choir, and a simple cross hanging above.
Shortly after we took our seats the choir began warming up. I realized only after she walked down from rehearsing that half of the husband/wife ministerial team had been singing in the choir. The other half of the team summoned all those participating directly in the baptisms to follow him to receive instructions on the ceremony.
The two ministers alternated leading the service. Following a short interactive teaching to the children of the church, the husband called the family members of those being baptized toward the baptismal font. My brother, Brad, and his father-in-law, Paul, officially entered the church before the baptismal rite. Emily Alice wore the same diminutive white dress that her older sister, Hannah, had worn two years earlier. She was as peaceful as a little cherub as the baptimal waters cleased her from Original Sin and placed an indelible mark on her as a child of God.
The second candidate for baptism was Brad’s brother-in-law, Scott, who stands at least 6’2″ and is in his mid-thirties. He wore a nice suit instead of the traditional white garments and the minister had him get on his knees to receive the cleansing waters. The pastor intoned, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He quipped as he splashed a generous portion of water on Scott’s head, “I knew it was going to take a lot of water!” As part of the tradition, Maria as Godmother paraded Emily Alice around the church as flashes went off and the angelic baby remained serene. There were no takers to carry Scott around the church!
The ceremony was quite moving and made me reminisce about my own Christian journey. I had been baptized as an infant in another Reformed Church in NJ and had attended Sunday School and was confirmed in that church at age 14. Through high school my faith was not very important to me until my senior year when a friend lent me the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I remember reading the book without penetrating the message very effectively. That all changed one Saturday evening in 1989. I was reading Lewis’ book alone in my bedroom when I had a undeniable experience of God. Tears rolled down my face, my hair stood on end, and I felt a palpable presence of the Divine right there in the room. My worldview transformed in an instant from self-centered hedonism to a Christian outlook. The trajectory of my life has led me toward Christ from that day forward.
That is not to say that there have not been many bumps, detours, and failures along the way, but the path has remained fixed on Christ. Two years after this experience I converted to Catholicism on the Easter Vigil in 1991; interestingly the date was March 30, 1991, 21 years ago today. The morning following my entrance into the Catholic Church, I had the privilege to attend Easter Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with then John Cardinal O’Connor. It was quite a thrill! I have never regretted my decision to convert for one minute since then, although I have paid a high price for it at times. There have been countless lessons in life and in the faith since then, but I do not have the time or space to relate them now. That will have to wait for another time.
Maria and I attend the Easter Vigil Mass almost every year to both celebrate the highest mass in the Church’s liturgical calendar and in solidarity with the catechumens who are received into the Church on that occasion. In the Catholic Church both infants and adults wear white on their baptismal day to symbolize being made a ‘new creation’ in Christ and having Original Sin expunged. The godparents are given lighted candles to symbolize the light of Christ. Incidentally, at a Christian funeral in the Catholic Church a white cloth covers the coffin and a candle is lit to show that the Christian is supposed to keep that same baptismal light going throughout life and into eternity!
Zelie Martin, the mother of St. Therese, wrote to her sister-in-law about Therese’s birth and baptism in January 1873. ” My little girl was born last night, Thursday, at eleven-thirty. She’s very strong and in very good health. They tell me she weighs eight pounds. Let’s say six, which is still not bad. She seems very sweet. I’m very happy. However, at first I was surprised. I was so sure I was having a boy. I’d been imagining this for two months because I could feel she was much stronger than my other children. I barely suffered a half hour. What I felt before was practically nothing. She’ll be baptized tomorrow, Saturday. The only thing missing to make the celebration complete is all of you. Marie is going to be the godmother, and a little boy close to her age will be the godfather.” (A Call To a Deeper Love, p. 103-104) St. Therese took her commitment as a baptized Christian very seriously throughout her short life and was truly the seed that fell on rich soil, and produced fruit a hundredfold. (Matthew 13:8)
Jesus Christ himself was baptized by John the Baptist immediately prior to the commencement of his public ministry. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I an well pleased’.” (Matthew 3: 13, 16-17)
Last Sunday was a day to remember for Emily Alice, Scott, and for all of us privileged to be present for the great event!
Switching gears, we are grateful that Pope Benedict XVI had such a blessed and safe trip to Mexico and Cuba this past week and we pray that it will bear much fruit!