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A rite's richness suggests abundant life.

The news that Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted is not going to restrict the distribution of Communion in the form of wine was met with as much rejoicing as the earlier report that he planned to restrict Communion wine were met with cries of grief. Why would the reception of the blood of Christ at Mass cause such intense feelings on both sides of the issue? A common argument in defense of restricting Communion to one species is legal: Jesus Christ is fully present in the consecrated forms of bread and wine. So, why, they ask, would anyone care if laypeople receive from the cup at Sunday Mass?

If you are in imminent danger of death, or some equally dire situation, I can baptize you. I am a baptized laywoman. I am not the ordinary minister of baptism. But I can perform a valid, that is, licit, baptism. I must use water. I must use the Trinitarian formula. I must intend what the church intends in baptism. No scripture, no recitation of the creed, no renunciation of sin, no washing, no oil, no dressing, no presentation of the candle, and still, what I have done is legal. It fulfills the law. But is it the full expression of the sign of baptism?

If water and the Trinitarian formula and a right disposition are all that is required under law, why does the rite of the church contain so many elements?

I recall the baptisms of my children. With each one of them, the smell of chrism on their skin lingered for days. I remember rising in the dark to feed a tiny son or daughter. I remember watching the head at my breast, seeing the pulse where the skull had yet to fuse. It seemed as if the smell--of a Ponderosa pine after the rain--rose out of that sweet, unguarded spot. The skin of the fontanel is tough, but every mother protects it, making her hands a shield until the shield of the skull is in place.

The odor of chrism rising from a baby's head reminded me of the promises I had made on his behalf, in her name. My husband and I, like Adam in the garden, had named the child. We had brought the baby into the church and asked the church for the gift and the grace of baptism. We brought our child to the church in much the same way as we covered the soft spot on its head: as an act of love, as an act of protection, as an act of care, as an act of faith.

We had promised, before God and before the church, to accept the responsibility of training our child in the practice of faith. We had accepted the duty of bringing our child up to keep God's commandments as Christ taught us. The godparents stood beside us and promised to help us. Then we heard our story, told in scripture. It is the story of God's faithfulness to a people who break faith and lose faith. It is the story of the Father who is faithful and loving to a rebellious and hateful child. It is our story. It is our child's story

We asked all the saints to pray for our child. We held our child as the priest anointed him with the oil of salvation. We prayed silently with the priest as he prayed that she might be made a temple of God's glory.

We heard our story retold in the blessing of water--water, which means both life and death for humankind. We heard how God used the great flood to make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness. We heard how God led the children through the Red Sea from slavery into freedom. We heard how John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan.

We spoke for our child in the rite of exorcism. We said on our child's behalf what our child would one day have to do independently, that is, to say the noes that must be said before one can say yes. Athletes know this. One must say no to lying on the couch before one can say yes to strength and endurance. Husbands and wives know this. One must say no to all others before saying yes to one another. Christians know this. One must say no to evil before saying yes to God.

Then the baptism, the handing over of our child to be put down into the water and brought back up. The anointing and the final naming of this child, "forever a member of Christ, who is Priest, Prophet and King." Clothing with the white garment, receiving the light of Christ, praying over the child's ears and mouth, a prayer that pierced me ever more and more as my children grew and went off to school and I heard some of what they hear, some of what they say Nothing save the threefold pouring of water with the recitation of the Trinitarian formula is necessary for the baptism to be legal, to be licit, to be valid. And yet the church bids us celebrate this rich and abundant rite, perhaps because its very richness suggests the abundant life into which we are welcomed.

In the same way, I cannot imagine a feast without food and drink, bread and wine, or as Isaiah puts it in his invitation to grace,
  All you who are thirsty,
  Come to the water!
  You who have no money,
  Come, receive grain and eat;
  Come, without paying and without cost,
  Drink wine and milk!
  Heed me and you shall eat well ...
  You shall delight in rich fare.

When Isaiah reveals this vision of the New Zion, he uses the image of a banquet, in all its wondrous excess.

The law is about what must be done. God is about what can be done, the wonders God performs in our sight and in our hearing: Lazarus called forth from the dead, the stone rolled away from the once-filled, now empty tomb; bread and wine become Christ's very body and blood.

If circumstances so demanded, I would have been grateful for a baptism in the kitchen sink. But I am thankful that God allowed us the fullness of the rite. The memories of those small, chrism-scented heads, the downy hair, slicked with oil, sustains me still.

The church calls us to a feast at every Mass. God sets the table. God provides the fare. God bids us, "Take and eat. Take and drink." As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. May this proclamation be ever on our lips. May our bodies be ever filled with blood from the life-giving cup and the body of the risen Lord.

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum's columns for NCR are collected online at]
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Author:Nussbaum, Melissa Musick
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 9, 2011
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