Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Watching Grace

I love baptisms. I like baptisms with babies, in their frilly white gowns with a gaggle of adults around. I like baptisms with adults, making a mature decision to take baby steps. I like the water, the shells, the cleanliness of it all. I like being part of the community that welcomes our newest member into its fold. I like knowing that I was once that newbie and that the community lived up to its promises to me. I love being a witness to such a powerful ritual and sacrament.

Over the past two Easters, I’ve seen adults baptized into the Catholic faith, and over my life, I’ve been present for several babies and children being baptized at my Protestant church. And it only occurred to me recently that this is sort of backwards from the typical experience: Catholics are traditionally baptized as infants, and a sizeable group of Protestants get baptized as adults. What made me realize this was that I finally got to see my first infant baptism in the Catholic Church.

I went to mass last Saturday expecting the usual, which is the cadre of old, white couples and me, pulling down the average age by a few decades. Everyone has a pew or two to themselves. The small numbers make for a quiet and quick service. We only hit an hour if there are multiple announcements. As it got closer to time for service, I noticed that it was a bit more crowded than usual. It eventually got so crowded that we had to open up the curtains that allow for extra seating. I actually had to share my pew. There were several Hispanic families now, with little kids that, while well-behaved, were much noisier than the regular retirees. That’s when I noticed the baby up front in a white dress and bonnet, the clear indication of impending baptism. I got stoically giddy, which sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s the only kind of giddy my German genes will allow in a public place.

The Spanish mass is usually offered on Sunday afternoons. Bilingual masses are only for Holy Days of Obligation, which means the Hispanic and Anglo communities rarely come together. I was fascinated by the two cultures thrown together, each aware of the other’s worship preferences. The Anglos like a larger personal space and absolute quiet. The Hispanics have a closer sense of personal space, and they talk or let their kids run around or talk during the service. But we were all there for the same purpose, and that trumped the small differences. We jumped between English and Spanish and probably some Spanglish, and everyone followed along well enough. I couldn’t help thinking that the language barrier would be less noticeable if we were all confused by the Latin together.

It felt so nice, like a real diverse, single community, instead of two communities in one space. I was distracted throughout the service, but appreciating the community seemed to be worship as well. After a few years, I’m almost about to go through the motions and responses whether I understand the language or not. I do know the readings were about sheep, which I thought was appropriate for a baptism (because babies bundled up in white look like plump, little lambs).

The baptism itself was nothing new or extraordinary, which is what made it so wonderful. Proud parents and godparents, cute kid, priest trying to get the baby wet without causing it to cry, “in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti” (my Anglo ears only translate Spanish through Latin roots, but it was something like that), the adoring congregation looking on. It’s a ritual performed over a billion times. But it’s beautiful and special and miraculous each time. Repetition doesn’t diminish it, because it’s always a different soul receiving the grace of God. It’s always part of an epic saga about a person’s spiritual journey. Repetition only magnifies the glory, and it makes the community bigger and the pews fuller.

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