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Not long ago a classmate of mine introduced the Greek Orthodox celebration of Theophany in a doctoral seminar we shared. He presented it as an equivalent to the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration with which the majority of the class was more familiar. Here in Boston, his community begins their celebration of Theophany with a blessing of the water in the church. This provides the holy water for the rest of the year. Next, the priest and congregation move down to the Charles River. There, the priest blesses the river—the water that winds through our city.
I grinned when I heard this. I walk along that river nearly every day, and I knew I could never look at it the same way again.
It wasn’t until recently that I dug deep into the history and theology of baptism in the Catholic Church. For days, weeks even, I’ve been struggling to wrap my mind around the struggles that have constituted this defining practice in my church: What is the central aim of baptism? What does baptism do? How do we understand grace to work in this sacrament? Somewhere between theologians Karl Rahner and Aidan Kavanagh, I was captured by a moment of clarity. An epiphany, even. Contrary to what many assume, baptism is not a moment in which the baptized suddenly attains grace she or he had previously been without, like a once-empty vessel suddenly filled to the brim. Baptism is the special signification and realization of the grace that one already possesses—the grace every creature possesses as a creature of God. Baptism makes real, in a new way, the grace that was always already there. Once I thought about baptism like that, I wondered how I could have thought about it any other way.
Later in the afternoon after that doctoral seminar–under the first 70 degree sunshine we’d had in Boston this year–I sat on a bench near the river bank. And I couldn’t stop thinking, “All this time it was holy water. All this time it was holy and I never knew it.”
When we think about baptism’s connection to the grace that is already operative in our lives, knowingly and unknowingly, it brings new perspective to the renewal of our baptisms, a practice we carry out throughout the liturgical year and especially during this Easter season. Karl Rahner explained, “When we work hard and unselfishly in the service of our neighbor, when we are courageous and control our moods, when we remain cheerful, even when it is far from easy, but especially when we make the great and heavy decisions of life in a Christian way, we also come nearer to God (even though we do not always explicitly think of God), and the grace of our baptism keeps growing….All of this is properly already a renewal of baptism.” We’re exercising the grace of baptism all the time.
I can’t stop thinking about this lately–when I’m walking along the river, when I dip my fingers in the holy water at Church–I can’t stop thinking to myself, “All of it is holy—the river, baptism, all of this is holy.”
Mother, Washing Dishes by Susan Meyers
She rarely made us do it—
we’d clear the table instead—so my sister and I teased
that some day we’d train our children right
and not end up like her, after every meal stuck
with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us: gummy plates
in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.
Or did she guard her place
at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss
of the magnolia, the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.
On Holy Thursday, I kneel down on the cool hard floor of the sanctuary before a small basin of water. I take a stranger’s feet into my palms. With my small hands I tip the heavy pitcher of water, and with great care, I wash these feet. I dry them.
And every year when I am through, I look up at a warm, humble smile. And for a brief, still moment, I offer one too.
I would never want to give that up.
When the headlines appear, the questions come in. I’m used to this. And in fact, I’m absolutely flattered by it. It means a lot to me that people take the time to ask for my thoughts about whatever Catholic controversy fills the news on any given day. Sometimes, friends ask me to sort out the esoteric religious jargon for them. I’m capable of this only sometimes, but I am always honored that folks trust my assessment of the tradition. Other times, these blessed friends are simply concerned about how I’m dealing with it all. “How are you feeling about this, Jessica. How are you doing?”
In recent weeks when the news spread that the Vatican is making significant strides to revise its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases–all while allegedly linking the severity of these sins to the ordination of women–the questions came in, and I started to ask myself, “How are you feeling about this, Jessica? How are you doing?”
I couldn’t stop thinking about the story my friend Katie told me the other day. During a recent weekend, she volunteered at a middle school camp for inner city youth run by the Catholic parochial school where she taught for a few years after college. On that Sunday morning, she went to Mass with the students and their teachers in the camp’s quaint wooden chapel. The presider was gracious with the kids, and a good homilist, too. “But the tabernacle there–” she told me. That’s what got her. “The tabernacle looks just like the boy’s Catholic school down the street. Like the shape of their building.” I began to smile as she went on. I delighted in the fact that this friend anticipated the wonder I would share with her as she recounted this experience for me. “This is what Catholicism is about, isn’t it? Recognizing Jesus inside an inner city school like that? Like that? Believing that Jesus dwells with the underprivileged so much that you make a symbol of it with the most important part of your sanctuary?”
I nodded as we savored this moment that captured the best of our Church. In that small moment, we didn’t have to convince ourselves that we are so blessed to belong to this Church. We are blessed to have church that views inner city schools as tabernacles, and tabernacles as inner city schools. And blessed to be raised in a church that has given us the eyes to see the world in this way, too. “I wish I had moments like that more often,” Katie said. I think she was referring to the tabernacle at the camp, but I was thinking the same thing about the moment we had just shared–that moment of unwavering pride for our faith.
I’ve been telling a lot of people that, for many reasons, I feel sad and disappointed about the recent Vatican stirrings. And, really, I’m feeling tired of feeling sad and disappointed. But I am also trying to tell a lot of people about my hope. I’m trying to talk about that, too. I’m trying to tell them about the eyes this tradition has afforded me–Katie and me. Eyes that recognize miraculous transformations in places and people that much of society overlooks. Eyes that see Jesus in the sometimes harsh and unglamorous realities of our cities. Eyes set on recognizing God’s redemption of our world in any and every place. Even in our Church.
…Today I was reading about Marie Curie: she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness her body bombarded for years by the element she had purified It seems she denied to the end the source of the cataracts on her eyes the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying her wounds denying her wounds came from the same source as her power
–an excerpt from “Power” by Adrienne Rich
On Thursday I went to an evening liturgy at the Episcopal Cathedral. Instead of extending my palms over the altar during the Eucharistic prayer as the presider had implored us to do, I attempted to wipe the tears from my cheeks without attracting the attention of the small congregation. Instead of singing and casually swaying with the melody of the communion song, I was preoccupied by the tense knot in my throat, trying to swallow it–along with all that unbridled emotion.
It was the liturgy of my dreams, right there in front of me: the liturgical prayers and rituals I loved, enacted by a community with lay and ordained ministers of every gender, sexuality, and race, language that reflected tradition while emphasizing the full and equal participation of all. All this filled me with joy and excitement–yes–but the tears were an outpouring of another kind. As I stood there amid that liturgy, I imagined what it would be like to call this my church. And I cried because I could not imagine it.
I could not imagine my church becoming this type of church, nor could I imagine leaving my tradition for the sake of calling this one my own. Even when faced with the manifestation of this seemingly ideal worship community, being Catholic–or potentially not Catholic–remained overwhelmingly complicated. There is some complicated power that binds me to Catholicism.
I do not live as Marie Currie died, denying the source of my wounds. I know it pains me at times to be in this tradition, but I also sense right now that there is a force keeping me here. Maybe I will figure it out some day, detangle myself from its mysterious pull to enter a space where I can call a liturgy like that my own. Until then…