I rose before 6 a.m., preparing the ham and setting the oven timer to make sure the casseroles would be hot by the time our company arrived. We had ordered a red velvet cake decorated with “God Bless Henry Graham” piped on the top.
In a few hours, our home would be filled with friends and family officially welcoming Henry into our family and into God’s.
New baby rituals abound in every culture. Circumcision. Shaving a baby’s head to rid it of the evil of a past life. Whispering a call to prayer into a newborn’s ear. Giving him a tiny bit of honey as a first taste of a sweet life. All serve as spiritual welcomes to the new.
Infant baptism is a ritual in my denomination, connecting a child (or adult) with community and with God. Parents and godparents speak for the baby until he can speak for himself at another rite — confirmation — which happens at around age 13.
Henry drew a crowd to the pew earlier this month — 12 of us — godparents and parents, grandparents, great aunt and two great grandmothers, and friends sprinkled throughout the congregation. We bought Henry two new monogrammed outfits (one, for just in case) and new blue and white soft saddle shoes. One of my church lady friends gave him a bib embroidered with a cross.
Before the service, I sat thinking of my many years raising my children in this church, of the countless times they’d both walked down the aisle in Christmas pageants, as acolytes and choir members, at confirmation and graduation, for their weddings and now to celebrate this little boy.
The Book of Common Prayer contains services that mark our lives from our birth to the grave, and Henry, who received his first prayer book that day, would be welcomed into this tradition. Holy Baptism is one of two sacraments Jesus himself instructed us to practice. The other is Holy Eucharist.
The readings that day began with Genesis, when God creates woman to be man’s helpmate. Listening to the words, I thought about Henry’s parents and how they are indeed helpmates to each other, laughing with and soothing him, dressing, feeding and bathing him, taking turns dropping him at school. Each weekend they find some new place to explore with him — the colors of a Monet at the Metropolitan, the penguin feeding at the Central Park Zoo, the newest exhibit at MOMA.
On this day, a harpist captured his interest as he strummed “Impumptu-Caprice” before the service began. Henry so far has slept through music class at school. He slept through the sermon, too.
When the time came, his parents and godparents walked him toward the font during the baptismal hymn — a favorite: “I want to walk as a child of the light.” There is a verse that reads, “In him there is not darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike,” and I cry every time I sing it. That day was no different.
The truth is that Henry came into the world at a very dark time, and though my constant prayer is that he will have no darkness in this life, that’s not the reality, for anyone. The hope, though, is that light will somehow reach the shadows, and that Henry — all of us really — can capture it to lead us through.
One by one, Robert, our associate priest took each baby, dowsing each head with water as their dewy-eyed parents looked on. (Five babies, with Henry the only boy.)
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When Henry’s turn came, our rector, Greg — the priest who had married Henry’s parents nine years before — took him in his arms and poured the water of baptism over his unsuspecting head, his tiny shoes kicking the air in celebration.
Henry Graham. Even his name is a matter of ritual. Henry, for his father and his paternal great-grandfather, and Graham for my father and grandfather and son.
Rituals matter. They reminds us that in the minutia of our days there are things worth stopping to celebrate. Rituals give us a sense of wonder that we matter, somehow. They remind us of our connectedness to each other, and with baptism, our becoming a pearl in an eternal chain that stretches all the way back to Jesus.
At lunch, Henry didn’t feel like sleeping, so we passed him from lap to lap, making him smile. He never needed that second outfit. At day’s end, I read him a story about love and told him about all the people who loved him that he would never meet.
In the wee hours, I dreamed of my father, running up to him, hugging him tight and feeling his warmth.
“I need to tell you about Henry Graham,” I said.
“I know already,” he said. Which was just right.