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Heirs to the force of the water's keen fire


The first weekend of February we commemorate the Presentation of Jesus. Forty days after Jesus' birth, his parents brought him to the temple to be formally presented to God in a traditional Jewish ceremony. As described in the gospel of Luke, Anna and Simeon, two faithful Jewish elders, upon seeing the baby, proclaimed his status as the long-awaited redeemer and savior promised throughout the ages. Simeon, in fact, felt he could now die happy because he had seen the One who would serve as "a revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel."

Anna and Simeon weren't just buttering up two new parents who think their baby is the most spectacular thing ever to wear a diaper. Mary and Joseph certainly had an inkling of their son's uniqueness, what with special stars appearing and visits from angels, kings and shepherds. But the Messiah?

The elders' words were bittersweet. Simeon warned Mary that she would be "pierced with a sword" because of the deep divisions and turmoil that would follow her son. In the Old Testament reading for the day, Malachi compares the coming of the Promised One to the transforming force of "refiner's fire," the sanitizing sting of "fuller's lye." This is not a warm, fuzzy image.

Today we present our children to the temple in the sacrament of baptism. Certainly baptism is, on one level, a happy family celebration of the absolute beauty of each child, each small spirit as perfect, trusting, pure as an angel. On another, it's a welcoming to faith, to a community, to a religious tradition. Yet more deeply, it's a ritual with enormous implications for parents and child. When we are baptized into covenant with this Messiah, we are invited -- committed -- to feel the sting, to walk through the fire.

My parish community celebrates baptism during Sunday Mass every couple of months. Last baptism Sunday, I took my children up into our rickety choir loft to gain a bird's-eye view of the cluster of parents, godparents and babies directly below us around the circular copper baptismal font. Our presiders, the pastor and the youth and family programs coordinator, guide each family through questions and answers: What do you ask from the community for this child? Together, presiders and assembly, we say to each child: "We baptize you in the name of Jesus, who fished and played, laughed and wept." Then the parade of families -- proud, self-conscious, exuberant, pleased -- lift up to the congregation their little ones, wrapped in towels or dressed in infant finery, as the voices of the assembly rise up to the loft in a strong refrain: "Blessed by God, oh blessed be God/Who calls you by name/Holy and chosen one."

This is a celebration of new life, a welcoming into our community but also a dedication to faith. It is the beginning of letting go; we are giving them roots and wings, as the saying goes. If we as parents and faith community are doing our jobs, we are raising children who may plunge into the fire and lye. We may be raising a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Dorothy Day, a Jean Donovan, a Roy Bourgeois. My child's spiritual wings may carry him, carry her far away from me.

Before my third child was baptized, the facilitator at our sacramental preparation class related a story told by a woman, a Lutheran minister, at a conference. One evening, a young man out walking heard troubling sounds of a scuffle in a nearby alley. He approached the scene to discover that a woman was being assaulted. He had to think fast, to act immediately. The young man intervened, saving her from further harm, but he was killed in the altercation. The minister then said, "That's exactly what I raised him to do." The young man was her son, and she a mother "pierced by a sword" because of her child's integrity and selflessness.

The Feast of the Presentation is a good time to reflect on the sacrament of baptism. What does this public commitment of my child to a faith community mean? Am I raising my children to fight for someone else's life or human rights? To go to jail for their beliefs? To "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"? To resist the sometimes skewed values of the predominant culture? To preserve their integrity and purity of heart despite the despair and cynicism they will encounter?

We are baptizing the heirs to the line of Abraham, of David, of Jesus -- if not direct blood descendants, then descendants in spirit. And this is a time for us to reflect on our own baptismal call. It is through us and our children that the word lives on.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997