There’s a family story about my birth that, like a lot of family stories told and re-told over the years, is probably only tenuously true, but it’s a good story all the same. This is how it goes:
My parents had decided that if they had a girl, they would name her Janice. This was a merciful way of naming a child for my grandmother without actually saddling the child with my grandmother’s name, which was Janetta. But my mother’s labor was long and my head and shoulders were big, and her pain was great, and at a particularly difficult moment, she—who had never been particularly devoted to the Mother of Jesus—was heard to scream, “Get me out of this and I’ll name her Mary!”
But there’s another story about my birth that I cherish more than this one. It seems that when I finally did come out, I came out yellow. I must not have looked very strong, because one of the nurses, who was Irish and Catholic and devout, took me quietly to the far side of the room, dipped two fingers in some water, traced a cross on my brow and baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
Now, in the Catholic theology of 1947, this was known as a provisional baptism—an emergency baptism in case of death. Had I expired in the delivery room that morning, what that nurse did to me would have been a real live valid sacrament, and I would thereby have been spared an eternity in Limbo—a state of being in which the unbaptized soul of an infant enjoys all the natural happiness one could possibly enjoy, but where God is not present, and never will be.
But I didn’t die. I pinked up! And so I was baptized officially a month later with an honest-to-God-priest and a big baptismal font. My provisional baptism had indeed been provisional. It didn’t ‘count’ in the end, and so it became simply an amusing story about the way I came out yellow, but not a story about the day I became a Christian. That happened, according to my baptismal certificate, on January 21, the Feast of St Agnes, when my family brought me to St Mark’s on Dot Ave in the Ashmont section of Dorchester.
The church I belong to these days does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. In this community of faith, we don’t baptize babies because we believe they need to be baptized. Baptism for us is the cool forgiving river through which we are swept into the church. It’s a sign that we belong to the family of faith. It’s the way we pledge allegiance to the new polity we call the kingdom of God. It’s the act by which we are called to follow Jesus, and it’s the moment when we are given a ministry to carry out with him in the name of God’s compassion.
It isn’t a cleansing of original sin, but a promise that if we do sin, we will not be left in our sin; there will never be a moment in all our lives when we will be bereft of the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord—for God’s is a love that is incapable of holding our sins against us. No, we do not baptize in order to snatch people from the jaws of hell. We baptize in order to bury them deep in the heart of Christ’s life.
God knew me and loved me from the day I was formed in my mother’s womb, as psalm 139 so beautifully sings. Some scriptures say that God knew us even before we were formed in the womb. The point is that there was no place on the day I came yellow into the world, nor is there any place now that I’ve gone completely gray, that is devoid of God’s presence. Catholics have finally come around on this conviction too. You never hear talk about Limbo any more. That nurse need not have worried about my being cut off from God on the day I came weakly into the world. I was never in danger, mortal or immortal.
I do not, of course, remember my baptism, either one of them. But I like to imagine the day I was baptized because it is a source of comfort and courage and hope for me to know that, once upon a time (well, twice upon a time), the God who is always kind and merciful was merciful and kind to me in a very specific way, by enrolling me in the company of the faithful, making me a member of the body, a daughter of the church.
But a strange thing happens when I imagine my baptism. In my mind’s eye I never see the sanctuary of St Mark’s on Dot Ave. I always see a delivery room at the Boston Lying-In. I always hear a capped nurse murmur the trinitarian formula. I feel her fingers trace a watery cross on my head. I see me, pathetic, in her arms, a new creation in Christ. And I have to tell you that I always well up with affection for her. As far as I’m concerned, her baptism of my jaundiced little soul was anything but provisional. If I am indeed a Christian by baptism today, I believe that it was at that moment in that place and by her hand that baptism “took.”
I don’t believe what she believed about baptism. But it doesn’t matter. What moves me so much, and the reason I prefer her baptism to the priets’s, is that on the day she baptized me she was worried sick about what would happen to me. She didn’t want me to get lost. Baptizing me was her way of making sure that the little creature she held in her hands who was created by God for God and destined for the divine vision, would in fact see God. What she intended for me was the fullness of temporal life in the church should I live, and the fullness of eternal life in God should I die.
I was in no danger. Baptism was not required. Even if I had been in danger, it still would not have been required. But that is not to say that it did nothing for me. Her baptizing of me has given me a way of thinking about the church into which the sacrament ushers us. She has become in my mind a prototype of the church at its best, the assembly of graceful people who care about what happens to you, today and tomorrow and forever. People who would move heaven and earth to help you get free of every danger, mortal and immortal. People who do everything in their power to set you safely on the Way, keep you there, and not let you get lost.
The church is about a lot of things, but if it isn’t at least about this kind of concern, we may have missed the point.