Catholic Spirituality, Catholics Do What?, Evangelization, Marriage, motherhood, Parenting

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.

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9 Comments

  • Reply Sarah June 17, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    We are baptizing our first little guy a week from tomorrow. This just made me even more excited for the occasion.

    Woohoo for sacraments!

  • Reply Lyssa June 18, 2016 at 7:40 am

    This is SO my daughter! She’s a few weeks younger than yours. She’s my only child (well, #2 is due in a month), but man does she give us a run for our money. She is the WORST at church! I know we are doing the right thing by having her attend mass with us, but she seems to out-do her previous behavior every week.

    Thanks for the reminder that my husband and I are not failing at parenting 🙂

    • Reply Jean June 21, 2016 at 9:15 am

      Lyssa, you ARE doing the right thing by bringing her to Mass with you! Sometimes (and not always by any means) parents need to take their rambunctious little ‘uns out for a breather but if so please return asap. We need everyone there with us to worship as a community. None of us are ever the “right age” or “right stage”, even now in my 60’s. I wish more parents would come as a family. One of our littlest members is now old enough to say “ding ding” when the Sanctus bells are rung, and baby sings along with the priest when he sings the consecration prayers – I’m certain there’s no more beautiful voice offered in praise to God for His sacrifice.

  • Reply Maryann Hannah June 19, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    Beautiful. Since I prepare new parents for their child’s Baptism, I would like to steal, ,,,umm borrow,,,, some of these words. I’m always looking for better ways to express this amazing gift that will reach the “much better educated than I will ever be” couple, to the single mother who might not have even finished high school—in the same class. These are wonderful analogies.

  • Reply Megan Gariety June 20, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    I agree with this!! Even though we are not Catholic, I feel the same and we got all our of our boys baptized as babies!

  • Reply Julie June 20, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    I’m Jewish. While I don’t always agree with some of your beliefs/what you write about, I nonetheless really enjoy your blog and find myself coming back to read on a regular basis. I like to read about others’ beliefs and I feel that you do a nice job of expressing yours.

    Anyway, my reason for peeking out of lurkdom is to say – just in case your reference to 12 year olds is about Judaism – that Jews bring their babies into the religion as infants. For a baby boy, it happens on the 8th day of life when (health permitting), the brit milah is performed and he is given his Hebrew name. For a baby girl, it happens when she is given her Hebrew name. Among the more Orthodox, that occurs the first time the Torah is read following Baby’s birth. (Torah is read on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays so it’s not more than a few days before an Orthodox Jewish baby girl is named). For those less observant, it happens sometime in the first several months of the baby’s life.

    At the age of 12/13, Jews become an adult in the eyes of our religion, with all the rights and responsibilities that come as such. This happens regardless of whether the child has a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony where s/he reads from the Torah.

    Thanks for your blog – I really do find it a worthwhile read!

    Julie

    • Reply Jean June 21, 2016 at 8:33 pm

      Julie, thank you for your instructional comment. I found it interesting and it certainly clarified the difference between the naming and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah tradition. I won’t speak for Jenny on the meaning of the “12 years old” portion of her blog but I will add that some of my Christian Evangelical friends typically permit Baptism at 12 years of age, the earliest which in their belief Baptism may be performed.

      I hope you continue to contribute because I’ve always believed Christians need to learn more about Judaism – customs, culture, family life and beliefs.

  • Reply Jean June 21, 2016 at 9:48 am

    I still remember the words of our priest concerning infant baptism “We baptize babies because otherwise we’d have Christian parents raising pagan children. Parenthood is difficult enough.” Recalling that entire households were baptized by the Apostles, babies included, it makes sense to confer as much grace as possible for the journey ahead.

    Our family Christening dress is now approximately 116 years old. My father and his five brothers were baptized in it, my generation, our children and grandkids. It has traditionally been the privilege of the grandma to prepare the dress for the occasion, a fine cotton gown with many rows of eyelet embroidery and pintucks, washing, starching (spray starch a wonderful invention) and carefully ironing it. Pink or blue baby ribbons were often sewn at the wrists. It has on occasion been lent out to neighbours and now bears permanent holy oil stains which I have not made an effort to remove as these are precious evidence of the sacrament bestowed.

  • Reply Martha June 28, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    Your incorrigible daughter has a lookalike in our house! Made me laugh–our almost 2.5 year old girl is just the same 🙂 Gives us a run for our money every day! And already her baby brother giggles at her antics. Boy are we in trouble!! 😉

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