The radio had called for snow. At that point the news was unnecessary; it had already started to spit late in the morning, by noon it was coming down steadily. Although I’d have to say, ‘coming down’ didn’t really describe it; the snow was blowing across my windshield horizontally as the wind carried it across the fields and fences of the Panhandle. The temps had fallen all through the night as the ‘norther’ came in about dusk; they were hovering now in the mid-20s and had every prospect of falling through the day. It was going to be nasty all day long, no question and all the nastier because I was heading west. Christmas Eve was going to be a challenge.
“Get there early,” the pastor told me as he looked up through the window at the kitchen sink to the gray skies and out to the limbs dancing in the wind. ‘There is a family who wants to baptize their baby on Christmas Eve and you need to do the baptismal seminar beforehand. I told them: 4:00. Looks like you need to leave just after noon. If we don’t drive through the snow once in a while, we might as well close after Thanksgiving and open on Easter.” I got on the road just after lunch.
I pulled out onto the highway with the small flakes still tumbling across my windshield. Driving was slow but actually pretty easy. It was dry snow, the kind that falls when it’s really cold; nothing was sticking to the road. The Western Panhandle is so flat there really isn’t anyplace for the snow to accumulate; as long as I didn’t go too fast to not be able to recover from an unexpected skid, or too slow so as to be run over by some crazed tourist in his SUV on the way to the ski slopes in Colorado, I was going to be fine.
Pulling into the parking lot of the little church I saw the family was already there. Although it was hovering in the low 20s by then, they were sitting stoically in their pickup amid the snowflakes; a vision of hardiness that might become a sort of Christmas ornament. Everyone in the parish has a key to the chapel so I don’t know why they didn’t just go in; But the chapel is a looming place for those who don’t know where they stand and this couple didn’t look real solid.
Christianity is a religion that centers on a relationship with Jesus. It doesn’t have to be total and intimate; plenty of Christians have lived out their lives with hardly more than a holy card in their billfold to mark out what they believe; culture makes up for what they don’t have. That is, of course, when culture works. The Panhandle seemed to bleach culture out of people and reduce them to a husk. Harry, the associate ahead of me, used to joke that no one there ever used a blinker light because even that implied too much commitment. My couple was there, in their pickup, waiting to make sure I opened the door.
“Come in, come in Pete, Sally. It’s too cold to wait outside. Let’s go into the hall where it’s warm and we can begin.”
“Sure, Father. Let’s get started” Pete said. Sally didn’t say anything.
I adjusted the thermostats and waited until they got their coats off. We sat down at one of the long folding tables in the hall, Pete across the table facing me and Sally pulled up next to him at an angle so she could look at him and at me at the same time.
“We want to baptize your baby because it is the way into the life of the faith. You were baptized and that’s how you became a Catholic; it’s how Pete Junior is going to become a Catholic too.” It was just the three of us; we saw each other most Sundays. Sitting down to do all of this so formally, I mostly needed a chance to begin some forward motion. “So when we pour water over him, he’ll be initiated into the life of Christ. That’s why we baptize.” It was kind of clinical. I couldn’t help it, with the day’s adventure I wasn’t ready to be very much engaged yet.
Taciturn. Solid. Inexpressive. Pete’s eyes looked past me to the wall behind. “Father,” Pete again, “Whatever it takes, we’ll do what we’re supposed to do.”
“But it’s not just punching a clock. Baptism is our entrance into God’s own story.” He looked at me as if I were talking about nuclear fission. I always ended up making that mistake. I would eventually start talking as if I were at a seminar at school.
“So we pour the water over little Pete’s head and repeat the formula Jesus gave us and he’ll enter into the life of the Church in Christ,” I said with directness.
I paused to see if there would be any response. Nothing.
“Now some of the churches don’t care for babies being baptized but we Catholics . . .”
Sally glanced over at him, moving her head just a fraction. Pete noted her interruption and drew in a breath. He interrupted: “Father, Sally entered the Church when we got married. Her mother’s not a Catholic and she is really upset about this baptism. In fact, she’s not coming up for Christmas this year just because we’re going through with this.”
“Tell me Father, does it really matter?” Sally asked. “Do you think God really cares one way or the other?”
“Sure, it matters.” Of course I knew the answer. But when you answer a question, its just information. A fact doesn’t become a truth until you love it. I hadn’t ever been much good at getting others to knock at the doors of facts with enough passion to make it a truth. But I had to try.
“Tell me about your baby. Was it an easy delivery, Sally?”
She looked down and hesitated, staring at her kneecap. Then she looked up: “Father, it’s been awful. We weren’t ready when I got pregnant. We thought we’d wait for a couple of more years until we had our feet on the ground a little more. After the drought two summers ago and what it did to the cattle prices, Pete and I thought we might hold off until things got better. But then I found out I was expecting. It turned out to be all right; we had planned on having children eventually and we knew we could do it. We told our parents and they were excited. That helped.
“But I started to get sick right away. I felt really bad. Pete’s mom and dad were helpful but we live out beyond the Breaks and it’s a long way from town and I had to be alone a lot. I was so afraid.”
“But the worst thing was when we went to the doctor at the checkup.” Sally again. “He came in and told us the tests showed the baby might be Down’s Syndrome. When I heard that, I didn’t know what we were going to do. He told us it wasn’t for sure and that we might not know for certain without a doubt until the baby was born. I didn’t know what we were going to. We went back home and all, but it was awful, having it hang over us. I didn’t think we could do it, bring a child into the world that was going to need all that care.”
“Now that was tough, as tough as anything I’ve run into,” Pete said.
“Father, I, I thought about getting rid of the baby. I felt so ashamed; I know it was wrong even to think those things. But I felt desperate, more than I’ve ever felt anything before. I was at the house and there was a lot to do to get ready, but it didn’t help. There for a little bit I even thought . . . I even thought about killing myself; I felt so bad. If we were going to make such a mistake with the kids we’re were going to have, I thought maybe everyone would be better off if I just wasn’t around. It was darkness like you’d never believe.”
“We didn’t tell anyone about it; we didn’t want them to worry. The hardest thing was to try and act excited around my mom. She could tell I was anxious but she thought it was just because it was the first child. When we went to the hospital for the delivery I was so nervous I could hardly talk. Thank God I was induced and didn’t have to wait that long. After the birth the nurse in the delivery room took a look at Petey and said to me, ‘your baby is perfect.’ I began to cry.”
“I want my mom to know what a blessing it is to have this baby. And now, I don’t know if we’re really worthy to have something like this in our lives. What if it had been different? What if I had decided we couldn’t do this? I would have destroyed something before he even had a chance to live. Do you think we even deserve to have this baby, with what we thought?”
There are no ordinary people. Every person walks a journey filled with every emotion, an avalanche of stumbling stones. Granite faces can mislead you into imagining nothing happens behind those features. But I was in the presence of grace.
So I gave love a try. “Your baby is the greatest blessing you can receive. And you know it now more than anyone else. What makes this baptism different isn’t that we pour water over this child before he knows what it means. No, what makes this sacrament holy today is that you know what it means; this is your own nativity scene. Jesus was the greatest gift born into the world, but the second greatest gift is your child born to you.
“I suspect Mary and Joseph had their desperate moments too. She bore him in a stable in winter, away from home. They didn’t deserve what they got; they got something more than that. I think maybe you did too. I think that’s why we baptize; what else could we do with such a gift than give him back to God as soon as we can?”
“Father, I think we can do that, give him to God.” Pete said. “Now, where are we supposed to stand when all of this happens?”
The deepest truths are always mulched with the concerns of the day.
And so Pete and Sally went home and got ready. I made sure things were set up in church. The snow kept falling, although it let up just a bit at about dark. The folks streamed in for Christmas Eve mass and we baptized Petey with Pete and Sally and Pete’s brother and sister as godparents. Things took a little longer than usual; it was an hour and a half before we were done.
At the end of mass I processed down the tiny aisle and threw open the doors of the chapel. During our time at mass the storm had blown itself out. The temp had fallen to probably 5° and the sky was clear. The stars were piercing in the cold. And the dry snow had blown away in the wind so that, coming out into the court yard, it was as if the day had all been a mirage, the nightmare land of hovering threats, all gone now, to leave a night of calm. I had to go on to the neighboring mission for midnight mass. It would be 0° when I got home at 2:00am.
Maybe it was the perfect Christmas. God has blessed us with promises that are not exhausted by the threats of cold and dark. Instead, there’s light and there’s life, and they’re unending.