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On baptism

Sep 22, 2020

Dear C—,1

This past Sunday, on a cool & bright New York day with the edges of autumn just beginning to creep into the last days of summer, you were baptized. Like autumn into summer, you may find the fact of your baptism—something in which you had no say & of which you have no memory—creeping into your life in strange & unexpected ways; you may not know quite why you were baptized; you may wonder what the point of your baptism was at all. I write this note in the hope it can offer some guidance here. Given the subject matter, this note is woefully short (despite its length!), but I hope it’s helpful even still.

The joys of life are many, & you’ll come to learn these in time—riding a bike without training wheels, enjoying a meal you helped to prepare, reading a book your mom loved when she was your age. But when you have enjoyed all life has to offer & when you come to the end of your time on earth, there life’s final obligation imposes itself. If you’ll allow me to be blunt: all living things—human beings, animals, plants—must die. Even nonliving things tend toward decay—given enough time, rocks break down into sand, stars explode into stardust, houses fall apart. This is an unfortunate, tragic, unsettling fact, but a fact nonetheless.

But it is exactly because of this burden of death that your parents had you baptized. Baptism, you see, is a remedy to the death into which all living things are born. When you were baptized, water was poured over your head three times. This ritual symbolically—though as Catholics we really ought to say “sacramentally”—puts the person being baptized to death; when she is lifted out of the baptismal font, she is raised to new life & made a member of the community founded by Christ & made up of all the baptized. This community—which we call “the church”—is freed by baptism from the reign of death & liberated into a reign of life. The freedom of the Christian is a freedom to live in & by the love of God—a love that is totally selfless & pure, concerned never for itself but always for the other.

But just as being born naturally imposed upon you an obligation of death, so does being reborn sacramentally impose upon you an obligation. & as you would expect, the obligation baptism imposes is exactly the opposite of the one imposed by being born: the baptized are obliged to live!

Christians have a peculiar understanding of what it is to live; peculiar, at least, according to how the rest of the world tends to think of what it is to live. For Christians to live, they must live for others—they must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger, visit the imprisoned. (For more on this, see chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel; or the Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5–7 of the same Gospel.) & very often, Christians must inconvenience themselves to live in this way—they must feed the hungry with their own food, clothe the naked with their own clothing, take the stranger into their own home, & visit the imprisoned on their own time. (St. Basil the Great says the unworn jacket in your closet rightfully belongs to the poor person who has no jacket!2) In this way, the life you received in your baptism is not so much yours as it is others’, especially those most in need of your help.

This obligation to live liberates us from the relentless rhythm of decay, that dirge of death according to which the rest of the world marches. Yet that baptismal obligation is not always pleasant—as I’ve just suggested, it involves a personal cost to the Christian. You may find yourself with less food than you might otherwise have because you’ve given some to your hungry neighbor, for example. What’s more, you may find the task itself unpleasant. The hungry might lack table manners, or the poor decorum; the stranger’s unusual customs might confuse you, & the prisoner’s past might frighten. (St. Vincent de Paul has some really lovely words on this; I remain forever haunted by his claim: “It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.” I have tears in my eyes as I recall my own failings in this respect.)

There’s another reason why we might shy away from baptism’s obligation (and many, regrettably, do). The obligation of baptism to live runs directly contrary to the world & its designs. Unlike the white garment of life that the baptized wear, the world wears a death shroud and, wittingly or not, the world seeks to shroud more of the living in death. There’s a reason, after all, that there are people without enough food, or too poor for clothing or a home, or lacking the freedom you enjoy. For the Christian to live her life for others, then, & for her to spread life in a world of death, is a subversive, even dangerous, undertaking. Indeed, the Christian seeks nothing less than liberation for all those bound by chains of death: liberation from hunger & poverty, and, yes, from the literal chains of the prison yard. The Christian seeks to undo, once & for all, the pattern of death in the world. (For more on this, see Mary’s Magnificat toward the end of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.)

This is the sort of subversive, dangerous trouble Jesus got himself into. He came into a world of death preaching a message of life & love; he rejected the status quo & sought to undo the patterns of death that keep all, oppressors & oppressed alike, in chains. But the powers that be would not stand for it; they dealt with the problem in the only way they knew how, & they had him killed. Ironically, it was this very act of violence against life that assured the final victory of life over death (but that’s another email for another time; in the meantime, you might take a look at chapter 15 of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, especially verses 35 & following).

The life that your baptism demands of you is subversive: for this reason, the world may try to stop you, as it did Jesus. There will be some who take advantage of your generosity; there will be some who ridicule you for what they take to be foolishness on your part; there may even be some who commit acts of violence against you, so desperate will they be to stop the liberation you bring. I hope this is not the case for you; but I also hope that you take the demands of your baptism seriously, & that you live the life you have been freed to live. St. Irenaeus, one of the first theologians in the church’s history, said that the glory of God is the human being fully alive. I hope you glorify God in all that you do by rejecting death & choosing to be fully alive for the liberation of yourself & of all.

Perhaps you find yourself inspired by the liberating power of your baptism; perhaps you find yourself daunted at the prospect of such a demanding life; perhaps you find yourself vaguely annoyed at having spent so much time reading all this nonsense! (I hope it’s not that last one, but I’m aware it’s at least a possibility.) However you respond to this—whether positively, negatively, or even indifferently—I hope you know there are people in your life who will always be available to talk to you about this. Your mom & dad rightly saw the good of baptism & so decided it was for you; your aunt V— & uncle B— as your godparents, have a special responsibility to guide you in matters of faith & spirituality; & I hope you’ll think of me as someone you can talk to about this. I promise you’ll always find in these people generous listeners, patient conversation partners, & loving family members. I look forward to the day we can talk about some of this, but until then I remain—

your uncle by law & your brother in Christ,

  1. I wrote this note for my niece on the occassion of her baptism. ↩︎

  2. In his homily I Will Tear Down My Barns: “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked & does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” ↩︎