After my parents passed away, my brother David gathered all the family pictures together, divvied them up into five separate piles, based on the sibling featured in the photograph. My sister received the biggest stack of pictures, being the first child, and my brother David, being the last child, received the smallest pile, two pictures taken when he accidentally stepped into a picture being taken of my sister.
I fared a little better, being the fourth of five children, and one of the pictures I received in my stack was a picture of my baptism taken by my Grandpa Hank, who had driven north from Vincennes with my Grandma Norma to witness my baptism into the Roman Catholic Church. I was frowning in the picture, obviously annoyed that a total stranger had just poured a pitcher of water on my head. It took 17 years, but I eventually got even by leaving the Catholic Church and joining the one denomination, the Religious Society of Friends, that didn’t drench its members.
I now realize their intentions were good. The Catholics were worried that if I died unbaptized, I would go to Limbo, specifically limbus infantum, which is the abode of those who have died without actual sin but whose original sin has not been washed away by baptism. Traditionally, this “children’s limbo” included not only dead unbaptized infants but also the mentally impaired.
While it’s easy to dismiss such beliefs as antiquated and absurd, what we mustn’t dismiss is a parent’s impulse, however misguided, to save their children. What parent, if they honestly believed their unbaptized child risked eternal torment, wouldn’t hasten to have their child baptized the moment it was born? If there is blame, let us attach it to the theologians, namely Saint Augustine, who devised such nonsense in the first place and the clerics who kept it alive. Let’s not fault the parents who simply wanted to safeguard their children. It is indefensible that for centuries church leaders have created dreadful and senseless doctrines, then prohibited others from questioning them. I second the words of Émile Zola who said, “Civilization will arrive in full when the very last brick from the very last church falls on the very last priest.”
When we Friends celebrate the birth of a child, we are saying three things. First, we are saying thank you. Second, we are saying this child is loved. Third, we are saying we are here to help. First, we say thank you. Let me let you in on a little secret. It isn’t important who we thank, only that our orientation to life be one of gratitude. The object of our gratitude isn’t nearly as important as the fact of our gratitude. God isn’t sitting up in heaven, demanding our effusive thanks, or else. God isn’t an egomaniac, needing or requiring credit for every good thing. So whether we thank God, or the process of evolution, or biological phenomena, is beside the point. What’s important is a posture of gratefulness, our sincere and heartfelt appreciation for the blessings in our lives.
The Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith said, “The soul that gives thanks can find comfort in everything; the soul that complains can find comfort in nothing.” We do not want to become the kind of people who go through life forever ungrateful. We do not want to live as ungracious, churlish people, unwilling to acknowledge our blessings. The soul that gives thanks can find comfort in everything; the soul that complains can find comfort in nothing. When we celebrate a child, we are saying, first and foremost, “Thank you.” We are embracing a posture of gratitude. That’s number one.
Number two, we are saying this child is loved. This child is important. Far too many children in our world never sense that, are never told that, are never cherished or esteemed. It is a sad fact that some parents are simply incapable of love. They have satisfied the biological aspect of parenthood, they have created a human life, but lack the capacity, ability, or inclination to love. Of all the human tragedies, the inability to love is the most scarring, for both the one who cannot love and the one who is not loved. Last week, we gave our graduates a copy of the book Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. Gary Paulsen was born to an absentee father and a mother incapable of love. Sent to live with an aunt and uncle in the north woods of Minnesota, his life was saved by their tender compassion. To love a child bereft of love is the finest gesture of grace in which we can participate. When we celebrate a child at Fairfield, we are reminding ourselves of the power and importance of love.
Number three. To celebrate a child is to acknowledge our simultaneous commitment to nurture and provide for that child. We do not affirm the importance of a child on Sunday, then on Monday turn our backs on that child, casting that child into the utter darkness of hunger and neglect. To dedicate a child is to dedicate ourselves to the betterment of not just that child, but the betterment of all children. Dedicating ourselves to children carries with it a real and consequential commitment. We hereafter dedicate ourselves to the improvement of the world that child will inhabit.
Joan and I deliver food every Tuesday night to families at risk of hunger. Several months ago, we were assigned a new family with two boys. The boys are unfailingly polite and hurry from their home to help us carry in their food for the week. Joan has adopted those boys, I can tell. When we pick up the food, instead of waiting for the volunteers to bring food to our car, she enters the food pantry, loading up box after box with fruits and vegetables and meats, and woe to anyone who tries to stop her. While she’s rounding up all the healthy stuff, I sneak over to the dessert shelf and snag them a box of Hostess Cupcakes, because life is meaningless without Hostess Cupcakes. But it’s Joan who has taken their well-being to heart, has made their well-being her personal priority. She knows what we all must come to know—that we cannot bless one child without simultaneously committing ourselves to blessing every child. When we take a picture, we must be sure to include every child and not just one.