[NPR, “All Things Considered,” June 8, 1998]
In this ranch house in an older suburb, the carpet in the dining room is vintage orange shag. But no dining table stands on it tonight; we moved out the table and moved in a giant Rubbermaid horse trough—the hundred-gallon size. The baptismal service is in full swing. As incense rises and the choir sings, my husband, the priest, floats blessed oil on top of the warm water. Then it’ s time for Mitchell to step in.
Some churches sprinkle for baptism, or pour water from a silver cup. But the Eastern Orthodox Church prefers full immersion, dunking the entire person underwater. Coming up with a container big enough for an adult is a practical problem. My husband sent out an internet appeal for suggestions on how to accomplish an immersion baptism, and the response from other priests was unanimous: you gotta get a horse trough.
He enjoyed getting it. He dressed in his long cassock and strolled about the feed & seed store admiring the troughs, until a puzzled salesperson asked if he needed any help. Now it stands in our friend Basil’s dining room, where we sometimes hold services until we get our own church building.
Baptism is the entry point for Christian faith, during which a person declares faith in Christ and joins a particular community. Our community is motley, as shown by this baptism. As Mitchell slips beneath the water his tangled black ponytail floats behind him. Outside, his battered blue car is festooned with painted handprints and the slogan “Work in Progress;” the varying bumperstickers sometimes include “Friends don’ t let friends vote Republican.” Our host Basil, on the other hand, is a cigar-puffing Greek who spent a lifetime running a grill, and is a fount of blistering opinions that make Rush Limbaugh look meek. When Mitchell decided he wanted to become Orthodox, he asked Basil to be his sponsor. It was a match made in heaven; it doesn’t make sense anywhere else.
The baptismal service is lengthy and dramatic. Mitchell must renounce the devil and turn to the west and spit on him, then turn east and proclaim faith in Christ. Candles flicker and the choir chants, wreathed in incense vapors. And in the midst of everything there is a heavy gray trough, looking like a tomb. That’ s not out of place. Baptism is meant to be a death, passing under the water in an act of surrender, acting out a willingness, as Jesus said, to die to self and live for him. On the other side of that death is life again, life transformed, and Mitchell comes up out of the watery tomb like a huge new 39-year-old baby, blinking in quiet surprise. As he sets a first squishy step on the shag rug, tears are running down Basil’s cheeks.