"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, February 13, 2006

My baptismal birthday

If they are fortunate, most people celebrate their birthdays, or at least have them celebrated for them. That is a well-nigh universal cultural constant it would be "idiotic," in the sense of the original Greek, to criticize. But as a Catholic and a man unafraid of being considered slightly eccentric in many ways, I prefer celebrating my baptismal to my natural birthday. Today is that day for me.

I was baptized as an infant on February 13, 1955, at a country church in central New Jersey. (Yes, there was still country in central New Jersey back then.) I have celebrated today by praying more, and more joyfully, than usual; if I had a few extra bucks, I would ask a friend to join me in a bottle of wine. Since I don't, I haven't. Yet celebrate I do. Perhaps my explanation why might get a few people thinking enough to enrich their lives by celebrating their baptismal birthdays, even if they don't happen share my preference.

Since reaching the big four-oh, my immediate reaction to thinking of another impending natural birthday is to hear a clock ticking in my head. Every year that passes is a year I get that much closer to death, whether or not I happen to feel like celebrating my life on a particular anniversary of my emergence from the womb. And while I can think of no reason other than a life of sin to fear death, such a fear is to some extent inevitable all the same. We have our physical origin in the animal kingdom where the survival instinct is very strong, perhaps even primary; not to hate death and wish to avoid it would be unnatural. And since I'm no saint yet, I don't have quite enough confidence in what will come after death not to approach it with judicious apprehension.

My baptismal birthday, on the other hand, has gradually become an occasion of almost unalloyed happiness for me. Baptism is our death-and-rebirth in the Lord. By that sacrament, we are symbolically immersed in waters that wash away the old self, born alienated from God, and vivify us with the very life of God. Thus, whether it happens when we are mewling infants or adults with checkered lives, we become new and glorious members of the Body of Christ, the Author of Life, in whom there is eternal life. The very signifying of that process by the act of baptism, as understood and practiced by the Church since the Apostles, initates its occurrence. That's what it is to be a sacrament: a visible instrumental cause, by divine decree, of invisible grace. I am profoundly grateful for the self-sacrifice that made it possible for such rituals to bestow the divine life on us. Thank you, Lord Jesus.

By baptism and its traditional completion, confirmation, we become members of the Church, which just is the Mystical Body of Christ. Indeed, as Augustine said, the whole Christ is the individual, risen Christ and his Mystical Body the Church. But that inconceivably great privilege also brings a great responsbility, if we mature enough to begin choosing our life paths for ourselves. That's not something to take for granted: many conceived children are spontaneously aborted; some, deliberately; some are born dead; others die before reaching adulthood; some are too mentally handicapped to make major life choices for themselves. Indeed I sometimes whether the majority of human persons ever make it to both chronological and psychological adulthood. But those of us who will make or have made it, and also get baptized, are members of a "royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart." If we don't live accordingly, our punishment will be greater than it will be for the merely ignorant who live similarly unedifying lives. Of course, many who are baptized never really learn what that means. Such are the "baptized pagans" whose representation in the Church, it must be said, is not small. The responsibility for them lies in part with people like me. I shudder when I think of how poorly my life reveals Christ to them. Even if not blackly wicked, it has been at best mediocre—at least, I suspect, from the only Point of View that's going to matter in the end.

So I all can do is take the occasion offered by this date in my life to renew my baptismal vows and open myself more joyfully to the grace that will transform me if I would but have it so and cooperate. I suggest every baptized Christian do the same.

A little wine wouldn't hurt either.
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