Posted January 06, 2012 in Word Made Flesh:
Epiphany of Baptism: Who-o-o-a!

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

The first time it happened it was so outside my experience, so eerie, I just stood there in shock, immobilized. Then I realized that the ground under my feet was undulating as if I were standing on the back of some huge slithery creature come alive.

I don’t know how long it lasted, but I do know it ended with a bizarre bang deep in the bowels of the earth below as I heard myself say, "Who-o-o-o-o-a! What the hell was that?"

You got my attention, Reverend, what was it?

"It," my friend, was the powerful tremor of an earthquake whose epicentre, I discovered later, was hundreds of miles away from where I was standing. (Thank God it didn’t cause any severe damage even at the center.)

Over the years I have experienced tiny earth-tremors now and then—maybe ten in my lifetime—but nothing like this one. But now even the slightest tremor gives birth to the full memory of that one all over again. But the eeriest of all the little tremors in my life happened under the most unexpected circumstances.

You were having beer and pizza while watching a hockey game on TV?

Hardly! No, it was on a Sunday afternoon during a baptism in the parish church where I was assigned. It’s not unusual for a newborn to be restless or to cry before or during a baptism, for lots of reasons, but this time it was a bit much.

From the moment I traced the Sign or the Cross on his tiny forehead, this baby turned into an agitated, restless alien in his mother’s arms. She could hardly keep hold of him, and the godparents could do no better.

It got so bad I thought we were going to have to bypass everything else in the ceremony, pour the water of baptism, and call it quits, but we made it.

However, as I poured the baptismal water in the Sign of the Cross on his tiny forehead, he wailed so loud I almost dropped the ladle. And he continued in full force until I was finished with the baptism. Then he went silent and limp as if he had died in his godmother’s arms. It was truly frightening.

As we all stood there looking at each other in shock, everything around us started to shake, rattle, and roll. It was only a slight tremor for about 5 or 10 seconds, but given what preceded it, it felt like a major earthquake to us.

And then that little baby broke the silence with a whole string of charming little baby sounds, as if somebody unseen was gently tickling him under the chin with a "coo-chi, coo-chi, coo."

And the nervous godfather, to his surprise, I’m sure, came out with, "Who-o-o-o-o-a!" followed by my expletive containing the word, "hell."

Whew! Remind me never to ask you to baptize any of my grandkids!

Not to worry: nothing like that ever happened again during any baptism I was present for. But I do believe that day it was the Holy Spirit gently cautioning a few "unbelievers" in that family, whom I knew all about, reminding them with a gentle tremor that this baptism thing is not an empty ritual.

(P.S. I know I would speak differently about these tremors if my whole life or family had been swallowed up in a massive earthquake as has been the case for so many people, and for whom my heart weeps every time.)

In any case—why, I don’t know—from that day forward, I began to link the major mysteries of the life of Christ to the image of earthquakes.

I imagined that every time a major event had taken place in his life—his conception, his birth, his baptism in the Jordan, each of his miracles, his transfiguration, his death and resurrection – each and every event was like a massive cosmic quake, off-the-Richter-scale.

And then I imagined that each time, for a nanosecond, everything in creation came to a dead stop, turned in the direction of their Maker, and bowed humbly once again as they had all done on their First Day. And then, with a mysterious bang, went back to normal.

I imagined that even in hell, the pesky little demons ducked their heads as if to avoid a direct hit while the Other Guy cried out in confusion at each majestic tremor, "Who-o-o-o-a, What the hell was that?" ("That," my dear Satan, was only the beginning! Wait till all the baptisms start!)

Very interesting, I must say, Reverend, but you know that not all Christians believe baptism involves demons and devils. Some see it as more of a personal commitment, a kind of religious "coming out" ceremony.

I’m not even sure about the baptism of babies, because they can’t make a personal choice on their own yet.

Well, even if some people who call themselves Christian don’t get it, demons and little babies (as soon as the water hits their foreheads), know exactly what baptism is all about.

But, whatever else we might say, the most important fact is that the Christian faith only comes fully alive through the victory of Christ Jesus over Satan and his pesky little demons with all their "works and pomps."

Baptism is the first felt-tremor of that cosmic quake, that epiphany in which Christ personally lifts every individual Christian up out of the grasp of The Evil One.

To miss that is to miss the whole meaning and purpose of baptism and all the other grace-full tremors along the way as well.

As I age, one of the most exciting and delightful things in my life of faith is to discover all those precious tremors by which the Spirit shook my faith right down to my shoes—whether that tremor was the cry of a newly baptised baby or a tiny tremor that rattled an old church on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

And what I have discovered is that when I failed to duly reverence, by clear and sound faith, that first tremor of Christ in my baptism, it wasn’t very long before I not only didn’t hear any faith-tremors in my life anymore, but eventually I could care less about the Other Guy and all his little demons in this precious chronicle of Salvation History.

So, how do you make it back to where you are now? You can’t have a baptism with an earthquake every Sunday.

There were lots of things involved, but perhaps the simplest of all was when I began to recognize that I was renewing the sense of my baptism every time I made the Sign of the Cross. And so I started doing it thoughtfully and more often throughout the day. Then gradually those blessed tremors of faith started showing up all over again.

You make The Sign of the Cross all day? You mean like right now?

Right now, together: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Who-o-o-o-a! What the hell was that?

"That," my friend, is precisely what happened to you when you were baptized. You may have forgotten it but the Other Guy and his pesky little demons never will. And it drives ‘em crazy: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."


If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!


Restoration Contents

Next article:
The Blessing of Poverty

Previous article:
Finding the Joy of the Ordinary



RSS 2.0RSS feed

Madonna House - A Training Centre for the Lay Apostolate