Drowning in grace: why Catholics practice infant baptism
June 17, 2016
I have a 2 year old who is incorrigible, in the most generous application of the term. If she were a little Austrian boy, her finger would be forever in her teacup. If I tell her to stop, she runs faster. If I yell about staying on the sidewalk, she jumps defiantly off the curb, cackling over her shoulder. I’ve shown her markers on paper and emphasized their fundamental relationship of belonging. I find scribbles on hardwood floors (washable is an accurate descriptor) and on clothing (not so much).
In sum? She needs a lot of encouragement to make good choices. Which is a diplomatic way of identifying her as a class 1 terrorist.
I know she’s not actually bad. She’s just fresh to this planet, and she’s learning about right and wrong, dangerous and safe, and the best way to drive her mother straight up crazy.
Part of my job description as mommy is making sure she becomes a functional adult one day, and stays alive in the process. So as much as I’d like to let her learn everything via that helpful phenomena known as “cause and effect,” her reptile brain is frequently encouraging her tiny body to do things which are deadly dumb. See: stovetops, parking lots, adult-depth swimming pools, etc.
So I make some choices for her. I choose what foods are nourishing and safe, and I prepare them for her and make sure she has enough. One day, years from now, she might throw down her sausage link and embrace a vegan diet. But until then? I’m the one cooking her 3 squares, and they’re chock full of animal products.
Veganism is an imperfect analogy, but it illustrates the point I’m coming to, which is that children require their parent’s best efforts, on their behalf, in order to arrive safely in adulthood.
The most essential thing I’ve done for all 4 of my kids so far has taken place in the front of a church, tiny baby held aloft over a basin of water, candles burning and the tang of chrism oil in the air.
An inoculation of grace, administered to a helpless babe, with the aim of eternal life.
Catholics don’t baptize their children as babies simply because it’s our religious custom, or merely to satisfy the grandparents’ desire to see that hand-me-down gown on the next generation. We baptize them because it’s a transformative sacrament which initiates them into the very family of God.
My babies don’t need to wait until they’re 12 years old, or 18, to enter into the Uebbing family. They belong there, no matter what choices they make, and no matter what their future holds. It is pure, unmerited belonging.
And when we pledged our fidelity to one another and to God on our wedding day, those yet-unborn children were already present in the mind of God, woven into our wedding vows to accept, nurture, and bring them up according to His laws and the laws of His Church.
I’ve heard the case made for letting children choose their own way, waiting and seeing if the religion thing “sticks” once they’re fully grown. And I think that’s kind of crazy.
I mean, I’m not waiting until they’re old enough to choose whether they’ll wear underwear before stepping outside (always debatable) or if they’d like to practice oral hygiene each day (could really go either way).
Why, then, when I make dozens of choices for them day in and day out, always with their eventual happiness and health in mind, would I delay in extending them an invitation into eternal life?
That’s why we bring our children to the Sacraments, isn’t it? To strengthen them on their journey through this life and orient them toward life in the world after this one. I can’t think of a single reason I’d want to hedge my bets against my children choosing God.
(It’s helpful to pause and consider that the Church has always taught that, while we are bound by the Sacraments, God is not. So babies who die unbaptized, at any age, are entrusted to His unfathomable mercy.)
Infant baptism speaks beautifully of the reality of our helpless state before God, crying out, perhaps literally, in surprise and maybe a little fear as He pours out His grace. None of us fully “get” the reality of our neediness before God, or the staggering price He paid to redeem us. But redeem us He did, and He wants us for his own. And because He is God and we are not, He comes to us in little, ordinary moments of extraordinary encounter that even a child can understand.
Bread. Wine. A splash of water. A cross traced in oil. Bent knees and folded hands and a tiny red flame flickering beside a golden box. God speaks transcendent mysteries in baby talk, showing us His heart in a way we can comprehend it.
Kind of like how I’m trying to woo my wild toddler into civility. One teachable moment and shriek of resistance at a time. She’ll get there. And thanks to a cold morning in January of 2015, she has all the grace available to her little soul that she needs for the journey.