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About the Author:
Arthur J. Magida is Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and author of The Rabbi and the Hit Man, Prophet of Rage, and How to Be a Perfect Stranger
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Sarah Fisher was a happy fifteen year old. The week before, she'd rejected
a friend who'd offered her marijuana. It's tough: when you're in high school
these days, pot is everywhere-people are smoking and dealing and whispering
about what's better, the stuff from Mexico or the stuff that someone's
cousin grew in his basement. This is the currency of hip youth, yet
all Sarah wanted to do was say "no." She wanted to say "never." She wanted
to say "not me, not you, not anyone." But that's so uncool, so dorky. Geeks
say that. Moms say that. Narcs say that. Not sophomores. Not friends.
Which left Sarah pretty much on her own. Not quite a pariah, but not in
the in-crowd, either. Sort of in between. But now, Sarah had finally found
her ally, her confidante, her friend for life: the Holy Spirit.
Turning away her buddy because of pot was hard enough: they'd been
pals since sixth grade. But Sarah knew that life would get harder: it always
does. Ahead was college, love, marriage, children, heartache-all the reckonings
that life either blesses us with or denies us. To some extent, we all
move in our own orbits, our own tracks, and now Sarah, reinforced by
the Spirit, was alone no more. She was ready for the long haul, and she
knew she would always have a companion-a divine companion-by
Minutes before I met Sarah, she'd been confirmed with sixty-five other
teens in a church in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., a spacious
house of worship with exposed wooden beams and lots of light streaming
through the windows: a pleasant and unassuming place, where magic
was struck whenever there was a confirmation. The previous week, Sarah
hadn't yielded to her pot-smoking friend, and already, a few minutes after
her confirmation, strengthened and emboldened by the Spirit, she was
ready for "mortal combat" with anyone foolish enough to try to lead her
astray. That was magic.
One sign that Sarah had been infused with the Spirit was that she was
already anticipating the future. Most teenagers can't see beyond the
present-their sights don't extend over that horizon. Unlike them, Sarah
had perspective. "If I didn't do this," she said firmly, "I'd feel empty when
I got married." With that declaration of ultimate intent, one that looked
down the road of her life with a maturity a few leaps ahead of her relatively
scant decade and a half, Sarah, her parents, and some family friends
went to a nearby Outback Steakhouse for dinner-steaks for two people,
surf and turf for two others, a thick piece of salmon for the lone semi-vegetarian.
Over dinner, Sarah's father said how much her confirmation
pleased him. "It fulfilled an obligation that I, as a Catholic parent, had
to my daughter," he reflected. "It was also really the first opportunity for
Sarah to have any meaningful say in deciding her religious identity, in
deciding how she will acknowledge that there are deeper levels of reality.
Coming to grips with this is crucial for truly centering your life. The spiritual
need-the divine spark-in each of us must be nourished or our lives
Forty-nine years separated Sarah's confirmation from her father's-his
was in Grosse Point, Michigan, in 1955. It was inevitable that they'd prepared
for their confirmations differently-the church had changed immensely
in that half century. "Sarah studied more Scripture," he said, "and
she had more discussions aimed at understanding. I memorized more questions
and answers, virtually none of which I can remember now. I was
happy that I answered all the questions and very impressed with the light
slap on the cheek from the bishop, a symbol that we may have to go
through hard knocks, and even be a martyr, to be Catholic. Now I think
'martyrdom' can be so much more subtle and insidious than simply being
physically persecuted for the faith. Spiritual martyrdom is real in our
society, especially today."
The Spirit that descended into Sarah Fisher was formerly known as the
"Holy Ghost." The name was changed because, as one priest told me, "it
sounded too much like Casper," the friendly cartoon ghost. Apparently,
"spooky" is not a desirable quality when trying to convince youngsters
that the religious life is the good life.
Whatever it's called, at any confirmation, the Spirit descends as a bishop
lays his hands on the youngsters, asking God to send His Holy Spirit upon
them to be their helper and guide. As he gently presses oil onto the forehead
of each confirmand, the Spirit's seven gifts descend-wisdom,
knowledge, understanding, courage, reverence, wonder, and awe-all buffering
the teenager against the ways of the world.
Sarah Fisher may have been the exception: she felt that Spirit, wanted
that Spirit, needed that Spirit. But sitting next to me at the rear of the
confirmation hall were three twelve-year-old girls, all confirmed the year
before. They hadn't necessarily enjoyed it, but it was part, they said, of being
Catholic, and that's what Catholics did. And their parents insisted on
it anyway. It was as simple as that.
"But did you feel the presence of the Holy Spirit at your confirmation?"
I inquired, pressing them gently for some sense of how they'd responded
to the ceremony. Wasn't the Spirit what this was all about? Being strengthened,
fortified, armored against the world, protected against sinners and
temptations, inspired by the Good News and the Holy Presence? They all
giggled, thinking me silly. "Of course not," said one girl, whose skimpy
skirt was slightly out of place in a church on a lovely Sunday afternoon.
"That stuff's for little kids."
Then she ran off, catching up with her friends, who were sauntering
along to the modest reception in the banquet room. They were trying to
look sophisticated while intuiting that at least a decade lay ahead of them
before they really had a claim on sophistication-with or without the intervention
of the Spirit.
The year before, in England, I met a much younger Anglican who had
a healthier perspective on the descent of the Spirit. "I really expected to be
suddenly enlightened," admitted nine-year-old Lauren. "This did not happen,
and I came to realize that the influence of the Holy Spirit is not felt
immediately, but over time." Indeed, and that time varies for everyone. For
all we know, by now little Lauren may be completely enveloped by the Holy
Spirit-a veritable warrior for Christ before she's even reached her first
decade. Or she could be as patient and wise as she was on the day of her
confirmation, knowing that all comes in due time and with due reason.
One problem when talking about Christian initiations is that they are the
most varied of all the major religions. And they're held at different times,
which does not ease the confusion. Only Catholics and Anglicans have
confirmations, and they're invariably for no one younger than nine or older
than sixteen. Every denomination has baptisms-some reserve them for
newborns, while others only baptize teenagers. A few baptize younger children
or baptize people as often as they want. Every branch of Christianity
offers first communion, and most have a first confession. Quakers, being
perennial outsiders, have absolutely nothing that's mentioned in this
This variety has much to do with how Christianity evolved. To create
their new religion, Christians borrowed three rites that had been buried
deep in Judaism. For centuries, Jews baptized either new converts or Jews
who had sinned or been sick as a way to welcome them back into the community.
Communion can be traced back to an ancient Jewish custom:
communing with ancestors through a meal. And confirmation is a version
of the ancient Jewish tradition of anointing males with oil to their
foreheads when they become mature.
Christians took all this and made something new. Baptism became more
miraculous and penetrating: a way to reach into the soul and purge the
sin and transgression of rebelling against God, of balking at God's rightful
rule over His creation and forgetting that we're mere stewards and
caretakers-cogs, if you will, of his great plan. Baptisms cleansed and refreshed
and renewed: you were beginning a new life, a fresh life, a life radically
different from before.
The first generations of Christians took the Jewish ceremony of anointing
with oil and laying on of hands and turned it into their confirmation
ritual, which was eventually reserved for young adolescents. What was being
confirmed were the promises that a proxy for these children had made
at their baptisms. These babies hadn't been able to swear that they would
be faithful to God; they didn't even know who God was. So adults did it
for them. Now the babies-all grown up-could make their own commitment
And communion became a way to bring people closer to Christ-closer,
in fact, than anyone had been when Jesus was alive. Wine and wafer transubstantiated
into Jesus' own blood and body, and people literally absorbed
their Messiah into themselves. Catholics still believe this and still rely on
this. As the Southern writer Flannery O'Conner said: "If the Host is only
a symbol, I'd say the Hell with it." She never did. And then there was the
young girl in Belfast who took communion for the first time in the 1970s.
Furious that the day was ruined when a boy threw a water balloon at her
pretty new dress, she vowed revenge-on Jesus, who should have protected
her. Messiahs are supposed to do that. How can you say you're saving the
world if bullies are still picking on little girls? The next week, she promised
herself, she would give Jesus' flesh a good chewing when the priest handed
out communion. Apparently, she figured that would teach Jesus not to
Let's look at these initiations one by one, starting with baptism and working
our way back to confirmation, where we'll rejoin Sarah Fisher and her
anti-drug campaign of one. That way, we'll get a sense of how each plays
out with Christians at different moments in their lives-cleansing their
souls, strengthening their resolve, readying them for this world and the
next one with a succession of charged illuminations and blessed transportations.
Baptism-the one almost-indispensable initiation for joining Jesus-is
central to becoming a Christian; for Christians, in fact, it's almost central
to being human. After a particularly unpleasant experience, someone
might say, "I need to take a bath-I feel dirty all over." After murdering
Duncan, for instance, Lady Macbeth complained that "all the perfumes of
Arabia will not sweeten this little hand." We want to be "sweet"-clean,
worthy, pure (even after murdering someone)-and baptism reaches where
words, prayers, and wishes cannot travel and penetrate. Sweeping away the
detritus, it refreshes and renews us. It makes us whole again.
Baptism has been called the "door of the sacraments" and "the door of
the church." Cynics have other names for it. H. L. Mencken called it the
"water route to the celestial city," which sounds like a travelogue about
Venice; and in the 1960s, Radio Moscow called it a "dangerous health menace"
and blamed it for the short life span of Russians-an average of thirty-two
years-under the czars, an era when nearly every Russian baby was
baptized. If these children weren't among the thousands who soon died of
pneumonia, then they suffered from "weak hearts" and "weak lungs" as
adults-all, of course, stemming from their brief dunking as babies.
It all started, as most things do in Christianity, with Jesus. John the Baptist,
Jesus' cousin, suddenly appeared out of the desert, proclaiming "a baptism
of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." John was a wonder-"clothed
in camel's hair, a leather belt around his waist," and feeding only
on "locusts and wild honey." People from throughout Judea, including,
according to Mark, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, came to see John and
hear him preach and be immersed in the Jordan, a broad but otherwise
unimpressive river in what is now northern Israel. Joining them, Jesus
emerged from the water and saw "the heavens break open and the Spirit
descend on him, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my
beloved Son; in you I take delight.'" From there, the Spirit drove Jesus
into the desert, where for forty days and forty nights, he held off the temptations
of the devil, readying himself for the battles that lay ahead. Finally
leaving the desert, he began his ministry, telling the people of Nazareth,
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me." Jesus preached, and he suffered, and
the day before his crucifixion, he promised his disciples that the Spirit
would not depart with his death. They, too, would sense, feel, and know
it. It would not disappear with him: "You will receive power when the
Holy Spirit comes down on you; then you are to be my witnesses." Forty
days later, at the feast of Pentecost, exactly that happened: the Spirit filled
the apostles, who began proclaiming "the mighty works of God," and anyone
who accepted their preaching received the "gift of the Holy Spirit"
upon being baptized.
For the first three hundred years after Jesus' death, the relatively few people
born as Christians were baptized on their deathbed, ensuring that no last-minute
transgressions screwed up their afterlife. But after Christianity conquered
the pagan world, baptisms flipped from the end of life to its beginning.
The church, turning its attention inward, was infatuated with
"original sin"-the new idea that everyone came into the world contaminated
by the sins that Adam and Eve had generated when they disobeyed
God. Suddenly, baptisms were touted as the cure for this cosmic infection.
By the middle of the third century, church leaders weren't debating
whether babies should be baptized. Baptism was now an infallible proposition
of the church. Rather, church leaders had to figure out when babies
should be baptized: two days after birth or eight days, which is when Jewish
males were circumcised. They voted for the earlier time. Holding off
baptism, even for a few days, was too risky: Who knew what kind of mischief
those little tykes could get into? And finally, went one of the arguments,
every baby was literally crying out to be baptized. The wailing that
we usually associate with being hungry or soiled was really a plea to be
baptized-fast-so they would be purged of the stain from that first sin.
Those little babies, so new to the world, understood that life without baptism
was really just a way station to hell. They might be newborns, but
they weren't dummies.
The severity of this damnation proved to be too much by the Middle
Ages, when more compassionate theologians proposed the idea of limbo
for unbaptized babies. Here, the tots would spend eternity in total happiness
although they would be denied the presence of God and perfect
communion with Christ. Protestant reformers eliminated limbo from their
theology, but this imperfect, incomplete afterlife remained a staple of
Catholicism until 2005, when the Vatican signaled that it, too, was excising
limbo from its architecture of the cosmos. This was a nod to reality:
few Catholics were taking limbo seriously. As Rev. James Martin, the editor
of the Jesuit publication America, said, "I've rarely baptized a baby
where [limbo] has not come up, at least as a joke." It was also done as an
empathic gesture: In 2004 Pope John Paul II had charged the church's International
Theological Commission with devising "a more coherent and
enlightened way" of describing the fate of blameless, innocent infants who
die without a baptism.
One possible unintended side effect of this newfound grace is that the
urgency that previously enveloped baptism may fade. And with that, the
generosity of Rome may eclipse the indispensability of a ceremony that assured
endless generations of Christians that they were more than the elect.
They were the saved.
As Christianity developed, so too did styles for baptizing. Catholics,
Lutherans, and Episcopalians are sprinkled with water; Baptists (and many
other Christians) are immersed in it. These differences started with the
Roman emperor Constantine. On the eve of a major battle in 312 C.E.,
Constantine had a vision of a cross bearing this inscription: "Conquer with
this!" He won the battle, Christianity won his heart, and Rome had a new
state religion. Almost overnight, it was mandatory to baptize babies, a policy
so successful that, by the close of the fourth century, nearly 90 percent
of the empire's population was Christian. Most had been baptized as infants.
Not Constantine. It was common for Roman generals and politicians,
the kind of people who fought military campaigns or carried out
capital punishments, to delay their baptisms until close to death so all their
sins would be expunged. Constantine did the same. On his deathbed in
337 C.E., he was too weak to be moved and too fragile to be immersed. Instead,
water was sprinkled on him, the drops rinsing away sixty-four years
of scheming, warring, plotting, and killing. Hours later, he died.
Excerpted from Opening the Doors of Wonder
by Arthur J. Magida
Copyright © 2006 by The Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission.
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