I came early to this year’s Easter Vigil. I wanted to get a seat in the back, right beside the baptismal font. I was not being baptized that night. I was not the godparent or the friend of anyone being baptized. My interest was selfish. As a catechumen in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, I was scheduled to be baptized a year from that day. I wanted to see what would happen to me.
Before I began attending the parish, I had snooped around the Web site for photos of past Easter Vigils. Men and women, hair dripping, stood in the center of an octagonal shallow pool. I scanned the photo albums for a picture of the big moment. What did it look like to lose your life in the water? And just how much water would be used? (When my Unitarian parents finally swallowed the idea of my baptism, they asked: “But you won’t be dunked. Right?”)
The preparation for baptism seems designed to be as embarrassing as possible: the dismissal from Mass, the sharing of “spiritual journeys,” the oil stuck in your hair. The church seems to stress again and again that conversion happens in front of people. There is a time for internal revolutions and dark nights of the soul, and there is a time for very public wrangling and submitting, where you feel like a tantrum-prone child dragged into the bath.
Each week, by Sunday afternoon, I have studied the day’s Scripture readings, read the assigned chapters in the Catechism, and maybe even gone on a Wikipedia theology spree the night before, and I feel I have overdosed. The last thing in the world I want to think about is Jesus Christ. I want to be a happy, B.C. Athenian who knows in his bones that one day, in just a few centuries, he will be saved.
Sometimes I envision my whole baptism taking place privately. I could ask the priest to dunk me away from any crowds. I could have a barber quietly pronounce the triune name when he’s spritzing my hair down.
And yet, each Sunday, I continue my conversion in public. I wake earlier than I’d like to, drive farther than I’d like to, and stay longer than I’d like to—all because I must like to.
On Holy Saturday, the baptismal font stood immediately to my left, and just beyond it, the three catechumens minutes away from being Catholics. They wore clothes they didn’t mind getting wet, and no shoes: another challenge for the easily embarrassed.
The priest waded in and held out his hand. Already there was more water in the situation than I would have liked. One catechumen pinched her nose and dropped beneath the surface, the priest’s hand doing more to follow than guide. She wiped her eyes and pushed her hair back. The priest pronounced her a new creation.
Before me was a vision of the future: I was kneeling with the priest, dropping toward the water, and, like the others, I was glad. The only unpleasantness was not dread of stage fright, or doubt of the sacrament’s efficacy, but fear of public identification. Would I be able to pin my private thoughts to this very public proclamation, to stand up and say, yes, I am a Catholic?
I sensed that I would hesitate at the question even after baptism. I have spent so long not being a Christian that my tongue might trip over a “yes.” And in those moments when I am at my most Christian, swept up in the narrative and imagery of the Gospels, sensing viscerally the pieces of the kingdom that are already on earth, I am too overwhelmed to be identifying as anything. “Christian” seems a verb and not a noun: a thinking, struggling, and imagining. Perhaps when the day comes that I am asked if I am Christian, I will respond, “No. But I have faith, a faith mixed with doubt like all faith is, that Christ was divine, and I happily attend Mass in the church where I was baptized.”
After the elect had received their first Communion, I could see the sin left over in the pool. It looked like hair and dust. The congregation filed into the lobby for brownies and champagne. On my way out, I saw the priest. He held out his hand and whispered in my ear: “Soon for you.”