Baby G. received ashes at today's Ash Wednesday service. I didn't request it; the person imposing them just started right in with her, after giving me my black cross: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel!" he proclaimed
The thing of it was that as soon as he started imposing the ashes, Baby G. gave him a humongous, beatific smile even while he was saying "turn away from sin." The smile was so contagious, HE smiled. And I returned to my own seat repressing giggles. She was laughing at him, at the very idea of "turn away from sin"
I am certainly not the first person to be confronted with the apparent contradiction of 'original' sin and a baby who has not really had time to sin in the way we theologians refer to sin (as something we intend to do, as something we understand as wrong, et cetera). How can a baby sin? And, after all, what does baptizing an infant mean if our theology of baptism is that it saves us from sins?
And yet, there is the stark Ash Wednesday phrase: "remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."
It reminds me as I hold my three-month-old that unfortunately for her, she has been born to human parents. And unfortunately, the way of human life is that we are caught up in worlds that we have half been formed by and half made ourselves. In a world where there are protests, and people who have no jobs, and where slavery still exists, and the longest US war rages on, and taxes are due, and sick people can't get the care they need, and the globe seems certain to go to hell in a handbasket (at least if what counts for hell is rising waters and raging droughts) - if all that and more, it surely makes sense too that all too often I am short on patience, long on holding grudges, suspicious of trusting in God or anyone else for that matter (especially for how the proverbial "they" might be spending "my" money), and angry at very small provocations. Every day we rise and spend the waking time trying to prevent bad things from happening to us, or at least do damage control. We can control these things; we can make our lives better, we think - if only we vote for the right person or send money to the right cause or try to get more people to agree with my views on parenting, what kind of house to buy and how best to spend one's money, to say nothing of my views on war, money, health care, abortion, homosexuality and stem cell research.
And I am helpless dust - too helpless to prevent her from becoming a human who imbibes too much of her mother's sensibilities. "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return" becomes my most deeply felt prayer today for it reminds me that whatever sense of control we think we have over anything is, at best, a fleeting dream.
Of course she smiled. I have no more control over her churchly behavior than I do over my three year old's. ("Shhh." "We DON'T take our socks and shoes off in church." "Don't bang on the back of the pew, sweetie, that man's trying to pray." "Oh, honey, you can't draw all over the offering envelopes. That wastes paper." "Keep your hands to yourself." "SHHHH." "SHHHHHHHHHHHHH.")
In remembering that I am dust, that Baby G. is dust, that the priest is dust, that even the President of the United States and Congress and the College of Cardinals and the Pope are all dust, I think of other reasons why we are baptized and why we baptize babies who cannot, after all, give reasoned consent to what we parents and godparents are doing on their behalf.
In this sea of an uncontrollable world that we think and believe with all our might that we can control, baptism expresses a Christian's hope in an "otherwise." Baptism is something outside our control and is therefore the antidote to what ails us. We cannot confer the grace received and in any case, what human would have come up with the idea that water and some words would be salvific?. The scales fall from our eyes; we see ourselves and others for what we are, nothing but dust.
But dust that has a hope of being redeemed. We come to see in that liturgical act that original sin does exist: this world we grow into and think we can control becomes an "otherwise" in baptism. It becomes a recognition that the truest, most beautiful, most godlike things, like a baby's smile, cannot be coerced or bought or sold. Like a plant, these godly things can only be planted, watered, and encouraged to root and bloom.
What is baptism but a hope that roots will form in that dust and that something beautiful, something that is God's, will witness to the world what it means to be saved.