Glynn Cardy 22/10/2023
The rite of baptism has a long, convoluted, and evolving history. Which is to say, what we do today, and what we mean in what we do and say, is different from the baptismal practices of Judaism of old, or of the John the Baptiser movement, or of the early Jesus movement, or of for that matter what has been practiced and preached in many places since.
Religious language can be beautiful and point to transcendent mystery and wonder, but it can also obscure the beauty, mystery, and wonder right before our eyes. Which is, this child.
What I’m about to say of Michael Wes O’Riley, who has graced this earth for nearly 12 months, is equally true of every person here, and indeed of every person everywhere, regardless of creed, culture, lineage, or moral aptitude.
For baptism is not a reward for coming to church or having great parents, nor is it a badge of acceptability or a ticket to heaven. Baptism is a pointer to great truths.
These truths are firstly: Michael you are magnificent. You are unique. You are special. You are no accident of circumstance, whether you parents planned for you or not. You are no product of a mechanised assembly line. You are not another brick in the wall. In the cells of your body and the pathways of your mind are mysteries that science is still stumbling upon and being amazed by. There will never be another you. Your fingerprints, your soul print, is unique. You are one of a kind.
This is what is fundamental, irreducible, paramount. This is your polestar. You are magnificent.
This may be difficult to comprehend as you age and move from home to kindergarten to school and beyond. There are many in our world wanting to reduce your magnificence to fit with their desire for uniformity and control. There are many who don’t want to acknowledge and celebrate your uniqueness but push you into and limit you with their prejudices.
The caesars and their money-men will demand their taxes, and you will need to learn how to meet those demands while staying true to yourself, not allowing them to diminish you and what you know to be true. For usually the caesars and their sycophants want more than your money; they want your allegiance, even your soul.
So you will need to learn how to navigate these passages and people. And hopefully you will have wise guides who will help you over the worst, guarding your heart, and encouraging you into your best.
The second great truth of baptism is that you’re loved. You’re loved by your parents and family. They are like a stream of love flowing through your life, bringing nurture and sustenance. You will also be loved by friends and many others. They too can be like brooks, tumbling and giggling and quenching your thirst.
But there is something else too about love. Kind of mysterious really. When terrible things happen. When trauma, grief, and loss arrive unbidden – which they will at some point (hopefully later rather than sooner) – and you will seek to steady your wobbly shaken world. When love is lost or broken or betrayed – the worst of which we hope will not visit you. When these things happen and the streams of love you’ve known seem to have dried up or be out of reach…
Then sometimes if you are very still and can listen clear, you might hear, the trickle or movement of water beneath you. For love really, actually, is all around. It is like an unseen energy. An underground, through-ground, stream. It is there in animals, in flowers, in trees, in food shared, in beauty bathing our wearied hearts, in kindnesses offered to warm them. It is not restricted to people, or to feelings. Some of us think the best name for this understanding of love is God.
And it is there. Free. Unconditionally offered. No tax attached. A grace. Never needing to be earnt or paid for. Amazing. Flowing. Even when we can’t see it.
The third great truth of baptism is that you are not alone. Even when you feel alone, or terribly alone. Not only are you magnificent, unique, and loved, but you are also connected with other humans through community. And the stronger the community, the healthier are the individuals who are its parts.
This church rite of baptism declares and celebrates our connection with each other. You are welcomed into a community whose principle organizational metaphor is that of a single body. So I might be a finger nail, with the purpose and functionality of a finger nail, but I’m also dependent on the finger I’m attached to, the hand I’m part of, and the whole flow of life-blood, nerves, and whatever that makes a body a body. Which means, although we are each magnificent and unique and loved, we need each other, and in our participation with each other we find purpose.
Community is a something of a given. There are strong communities, weak communities, and fragmented and fractured communities. It is possible though today, in our society, to live with minimal connection to any community. It is possible to live disconnected, sometimes by choice, oftentimes not.
I would encourage you Michael, throughout your life, to seek for and to choose community. To make and be part of networks beyond just your family or close friends. Be part of making good things happen for our environment and for others, especially people less fortunate than yourself, for we now know that so doing not only are others blessed but your own wellbeing finds its hearth.
Fourthly, and lastly, a great truth of baptism is that your life has a purpose. In the past we might have used the word ‘call’ or ‘vocation.’ You might have to spend a long time finding this purpose, or it might find you. Sometimes it is the intersection of your natural and learnt abilities and leanings, with the needs and suffering of our wider world, and happenstance. Sometimes it is something grand and notable. Other times it is something simple. Smiling can be a vocation. For smiles help healing. Growing flowers can be a vocation. For beauty too can heal.
I read last week again the story of Vedran Smailovic. He was cellist, a member of the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, when in the 1990s the travesty of war broke upon his land. He witnessed from his upstairs lodgings a mortar shell strike a breadline killing 22 people.
He wasn’t one to take up arms. He hadn’t the body of a warrior, or the heart of one. He wasn’t a politician or a peace-keeper or a medic. He was a cellist. What can a cellist do?
He dressed in his formal evening attire, as members of opera orchestras do, took a chair, and sat amidst the rubble of that bakery, and played his cello. For 22 days. Braving sniper and artillery fire to play Albinoni’s profoundly moving Adagio in G Minor.
Did this trauma of war, the deaths of 22 people, drive him to this crazy response? Was he unhinged? It was so futile. How can music stop bullets? What madness to go out alone in the streets and address the world with a wooden box and a hair-strung bow.
Yet isn’t this what music at its best can do? Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Verdan Smailovic speaking softly with his cello, one note at a time, was calling out the rats that infest the human spirit.
This is a true story. Neither the breadline nor the mortar shell nor the music is fiction. For like a real-life fairy tale, sometimes history knocks at the most ordinary door to see if anyone is at home. And sometimes someone is.
Most everyone today in Sarajevo knows now what a cellist can do – for the place where Vedran played has become an informal shrine, a place of honour. Croats, Serbs, Muslims, Christians alike – they all know his name and face.
They place flowers where he played. Commemorating the hope that must never die – that someday, somehow, the best of humanity shall overcome the worst, not through unexpected miracles but through the expected acts of the many.
Sarajevo is not the only place where Vedran Smailovic is known. Musicians around the world heard about him. They took their instruments and went out on the streets and played for 22 days, or even 22 hours, in acts of solidarity. In the hope for peace. In the task of calling out the rats that can infest the human spirit.
My point is that he was a musician, a cellist. But he found his vocation when confronted with profound suffering. He took what he knew, his music, and offered it as an affront to war. He offered it to our souls. He offered the simplicity and weakness of beauty and hope in the face of ravenous and raging violence.
Robert Fulghum, in his retelling of Smailovic’s story concludes saying, “Never, ever, regret or apologize for believing that when one person decides to risk addressing the world with truth, the world may stop what it is doing and hear. There is too much evidence to the contrary. When we cease believing this, the music will surely stop. The myth of the impossible dream is more powerful than all the facts of history.”
Today, we need that belief more than ever.