Baby on Board

I went to a baptism the other day, in a lovely old empty church. It was one of those brilliant afternoons when the sunlight coming in through the old mullioned windows looks like beams of butter.

The tall smiling priest introduced himself as the “baptismer.” “And this,” he said, “is our baptismee, in the lovely white frilly dress. His name is Vincent, as you know.”

Vincent was a couple of months old and just past the stage where infants all look like Yoda. He was just hitting his first serious growth spurt, and it seemed like it was his head that had done most of the growing so far. It was a tremendous head, and his eyes, wide open in amazement, seemed to be the size of baseballs from where I was standing in the back.

“That kid needs a zip code for his head,” said the man next to me, quietly.

The godparents hustled up to the altar and the young godfather, niggling at what was probably the first necktie he had worn since his First Communion, said “We do!” when the priest said hello, which got a general laugh.

The priest buckled down to business but he did so with such an easy grace that I was moved and proud of what a great priest can do. He managed to get in a good deal of church history and custom and belief about why we were baptizing this child, while never being in the least ponderous or pompous about it all. He was relaxed and funny. He turned ritual into celebration. He asked everyone to come on up and touch the boy, give him our blessing, pray for him with our fingers for a moment. Remember, he said, Christ was skin and bone like us. Then he asked all the children to stay gathered closely around Vincent, because it would relax the boy to have his fellow small tribe around him.

“That kid will have a head like a suitcase if he keeps growing at this rate,” said the man next to me.

“Why is the baby wearing a dress if he is a boy?” said a small girl suddenly, which got another laugh.

As the priest anointed Vincent with oil, the baby squirmed a little and the priest said, “Well, we were aiming for a cross there on his head, and I think we got closer to a Star of David, but Christ was Jewish, you remember, so we will also apparently be honoring our parent stock this afternoon. We could try to anoint Vincent again but I think we got close enough the first time for it to count, don’t you?”

The godparents made the usual promises, and the parents made sure to give the boy the name they had agreed to give him when they met him face to face for the first time, and the priest noted that there were excellent saints named Vincent, and the boy would have a posse or entourage of saintly men of that name, which couldn’t hurt.

“That kid has a head bigger than a basketball,” said the man next to me, who turned out to be the boy’s grandfather, a Navy veteran who had spent twenty years in submarines and once baptized a child on a beach in Vietnam for reasons he did not wish to explain at length in the church—“perhaps later, over a beer,” he said.

When the baptism was complete, the priest held Vincent out like a championship trophy and we all reached out and touched him again. And while he did indeed have a head like a pumpkin, it was his broad smile that stays with me. He looked really pleased and proud. You could see his feet kicking happily against the bottom of his white frilly dress. Then the priest gave Vincent back to his parents and everyone shook hands, and there were a few minutes of milling and laughing, and then everyone repaired to the house for a beer. On the way there I thought about how our church is these little sweet funny moments more than it is everything else, and how I love that, and how the little moments are the most tremendous prayers.

Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: 

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland.

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