written by Thea Chimento
It’s getting into Pentecost Season, which for many of our congregations means a Baptism Sunday is on the horizon. Since we can’t be together to worship right now, I wanted to share one of my favorite memories from happier times, about a baptism that went hilariously sideways. Some identifying details have been obscured, but the story itself is true.
It was about 10-ish years ago at a Church That Shall Remain Nameless. I had not long been sojourning with the Episcopal Church, and in my tradition of origin we didn’t do baptisms on specified feast days (not even -gasp- Easter Vigil), and we certainly didn’t do them in public. So I was surprised that anyone would subject themselves to a public dunking, and curious to see what this was all about.
There were about 10 kids getting baptized, and the families were all lined up in order in front of the font. Bringing up the rear was a three- or four-year-old little guy in seersucker short pants and suit jacket and one of those bowl cuts that looks vaguely adorable on very young children but totally obnoxious by the time they hit 5 (which is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to see on a future lacrosse player for some popular university back in the 90s. But I digress.) All the other kids were infants, and getting through the proceedings with the dignity and composure more or less inherent to larval humans, which is to say that some of them slept through the whole thing and some of them were protesting loudly and vociferously.
Our hero (he didn’t know it yet, but that was the part he was cast to play) watched the ceremony with the somewhat amused contemptuous air appropriate to one who has graduated to the privileges attendant on wearing Pull-Ups and independent locomotion and knows it. This, he seemed to say, is what happens to you when you are small and weak and potato-like. Your parents stuff you into a stupid white dress, and cheerfully hand you over to a person in funny clothes, who gives you a bath in front of a bunch of people. Doubtless this is how they select the passive sheep suitable for adult manipulation, whereas I, he thought proudly to himself, would choose death before such dishonorable treatment. Little did he know that that sentiment was about to be put to the test.
The deductive reasoning skills of this small child being apparently above average, it eventually dawned on him that it was a little odd that he was in the same line as all the larval humans receiving this undignified treatment at the hands of the person in funny clothes, while the kids his own age were all hanging out in the pews in front of the font. Surely, if he were being honored in a manner commensurate with his status as One Who Is Toilet-Trained And Eats Paste Without Puking, he would be with his peers, watching the gladiatorial contest from the seats of the Coliseum, as it were, rather than the piste. He began to saunter over towards the pews with the other kids, hands in pockets, looking as if he had the world on a string, which, for a few seconds more, he probably did. His fate, however, was already spun by Clotho; Lachesis had stretched it tight between her tireless hands; and Atropos at that moment reached out with her shears to sever the slender thread. In short, his mother bent swiftly, reached out with her beringed hand, snatched him by the suit collar, and tugged him back to her side.
What first could perhaps be excused as natural if contemptible maternal anxiety by the superior young male mind quickly assumed more sinister proportions. Again our young hero sauntered over towards where his peers were congregated, and again he was swiftly recalled. Somewhat impatient of this cloying female presence, he shook off his mother’s hand and yet again made for the pews, his mother yet again abruptly arresting his progress. This time there was no denying it. Like Isaac on Mt. Moriah, the scales fell from our hero’s eyes as he realized the sacrifice he assumed had been prepared was, in fact, himself.
Caravaggio could not have captured a finer study of shock and betrayal than what was stamped on our hero’s features. Rage at his parents, at the person in funny clothes, at the community who had cravenly supported this dastardly act, and at the sheer injustice existing in a world that would permit such a thing passed across his face in an instant. Some children might have collapsed in a wailing temper tantrum. But our hero was made of sterner stuff. If he had to go, by God! he would not go quietly. His death-song would be worthy of being sung down the generations, and future WASP-y lacrosse players would remember him as the Boy Who Resisted. He threw one calculating, withering glance at his mother and took off running as fast as his fat little legs would carry him, yelling “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!” at the top of his lungs as he ran.
As all parents and regular babysitters of toddlers know, no son of Thetis ever ran faster than a toddler intent on eluding capture, and this one was no exception. He streaked down the aisle like Usain Bolt setting a new world record for the 100-metre sprint, legs flashing in the light from the stained-glass windows. His mother, who was marking the occasion by wearing utterly fabulous 5-inch heels, was not in any shape to catch him, and the congregation was too shocked to stop him. On he ran, down the main aisle, out the narthex doors, and into the sunlight.
His one tactical mistake, excusable in one so young, was in not hanging a right past the font and heading for one of the side doors, where there was no usher, but in streaking down the wide open spaces of the main aisle. His choice became his downfall. For a brief, shining moment, the sun lit him up, a halo surrounding his golden hair as he made his way out into the courtyard. But Fate is cruel, snatching the fruits of victory from our eager lips at the moment of achievement. The usher standing outside the main doors, a tall and muscled young man with a vaguely military bearing, swiftly stuck out a foot, and our hero, still yelling, went sprawling.
The usher reached down and tried to pick up the child; our hero, being well-schooled in guerilla toddler resistance, instantly went limp in the classic Dead Weight technique. The usher’s Military Occupational Specialty had apparently been toddler counterinsurgency tactics, because he calmly grabbed the child by his shoulder and opposite hip and carried him football-style back to the font, with our hero kicking, flailing, and screaming “NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!” with enough force to rival a gale on Cape Horn.
Our hero was flailing so hard that the priest could not in fact hold him; instead, the (very patient) usher lifted the child up to the font, still screaming. The priest faced up to their duty manfully, gently pushing the child’s head down towards the font in order to baptize him. Once our hero realized what the priest was about, he began shaking his head, bobbing and weaving in an effort to avoid the priest’s hand. Not for him the bowing to the inevitable. Not for him the lamb-like submission. He trembled not for the forces of darkness; he howled defiance in the face of certain death. They would kill him; but the world would bear witness to his fate.
“Chester Damien (“NO! NO! NO!”), I baptize thee (“NO!”) in the name of the Father (“NO!”), and of the Son (“NONONONONONONO!!”), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” (“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”) In one final indignity, his parents held his head still while the priest applied the chrism. “Chester Damien, thou art sealed by the Holy Spirit (“NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!”) and marked as Christ’s own forever. (“NOHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!”) Amen.”
It was done. His fears had become flesh; he had suffered the deepest betrayal yet known to him in his short life; he stood unsupported by kith or kin; the world had been revealed as a dark, devouring place where the best are cut down in their prime because little minds cannot bear to see them succeed. And yet his head was bloody but unbowed. His body had been subdued; but his soul was unconquered. He had not given in, and his valiant doomed struggle would be long remembered.
That kid is probably now in high school, and I bet the story of his baptism is one that gets brought up at family gatherings, and will be forever, world without end, amen. And I’m sure that by now “the Holy Spirit, who [began] a good work in him, continue[s] to direct and uphold [him] in the service of Christ and his kingdom”. But I hope that somewhere in his little lacrosse-player’s heart, there is a secret sense of pride that all the forces of the Church Militant could not conquer such a one.
Thea Chimento is a public servant who spends way too much time (not enough time?) thinking about how our baptismal vows work themselves out in the world around us. She also loves the classics, in case you couldn’t tell. You can find her most Sundays singing loudly and being a smartass at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland.