God works through friendship: the Easter that changed me
To Karina and James Majewski on their wedding day, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
I had looked forward to Easter 2019 for months, even before Lent began; for with it would come the baptism of my new friend—the fiancée of an old and dear one, who had brought her into the Church. Yet I had no premonition, no inkling of how this Easter would change my own life.
It’s always good to see people entering the Church, but never had I seen a friend baptized before (unless you count babies, which I suppose I should). Karina had won everyone’s love very quickly with her sweet, open heart and the obvious sincerity of her conversion. Our anticipation (that of her future in-laws and I) was made all the keener because it made possible another sacrament just a few months away; and in truth, she was, as we all knew and felt, already becoming part of the family—the real family—that night.
But why did I myself anticipate this baptism so intensely that very often, over many months in advance, a spontaneous awareness of it pierced my heart with joy and brought tears to my eyes? I believe it was a combination of Karina’s innate lovability with the suddenness and depth of her conversion. Raised an atheist and far from Catholic in her cultural orbit and moral sentiments, she made a full turn in a short period of time to being completely “on board” with the Gospel—and this was evidently not the superficial and temporary sort of conversion one sometimes observes.
Faith is everywhere and always a supernatural virtue, so I hesitate to single Karina’s conversion out with the word “miraculous.” But the swiftness of the change in Karina made me poignantly aware of the radical change the sacrament would effect. She would literally be a new person, a new nature, subsumed into the person and nature of Christ. All her sins would be washed away, all punishment for those sins expunged. She would be a newborn babe (and then a few moments later, an adult) in Christ, with all the graces necessary to live that new life.
Easter came, after a Lent which I had observed perhaps better than any in the past, but not so much better as to betray the astounding graces with which it would conclude. As the vigil mass went on, a little bubble appeared through a crack in the dry earth, and then a trickle, and then a stream, a transformation matching the one I saw in Karina moment by moment as she received the rites of Christian initiation. Watching her hyperventilate through a radiant smile as her baptism approached, I began to realize that as much joy as I felt for Karina, I should be feeling the same joy for myself. What was she receiving that I had not?
The answer lies in that word “had”: somehow, I suspect as for many Catholics, baptism was for me an event in my past. Of course I knew intellectually that baptism leaves a permanent mark on the soul. I had a better and more experiential knowledge, too, that the sacraments we receive regularly, penance and the Eucharist, renew and increase our baptismal grace. But somehow, my vague sense about my baptism was of a gift I had received long ago—one I had treated rather poorly—rather than something of the present moment in an active and continually transformative way.
My baptism was to me a one-time soul-scrub and remission ticket. Or in role-playing game terms, it was a class which unlocked six really cool skill trees down the road, sure, but not in itself, by default, at each moment, a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Not that I would have denied it to be such—I have always been remarkably good at thinking I believe one thing while actually believing another—but as the mass went on, it dawned on me that I was not a new creation in Christ only back when I was a newly baptized baby, but that I could be brand new in Christ in every moment and every day. I should be, in short, as happy for myself as I was for Karina.
Truly, I don’t think I was at all unique in my attitude. As a practical example, how many of us believe we need to go looking for interior peace? Yet Christ says, “I leave you peace; My peace I give to you.” That peace in Christ is a default state; we only lose it if we do something to leave Him. Yes, confession and the Eucharist are essential for maintenance and growth in grace. But for one who is in that state, baptism taken in itself is a continual torrent of graces healing and renewing the soul.
The early Christians arguably had a greater awareness of the power of baptism than we do today, and had no small number of saints even without the benefit of two thousand years’ doctrinal and devotional development. St. John wrote that simply by praying for others who have committed non-mortal sins (and are therefore still in the state of grace), those sins will be forgiven (1 John 5:16). Those early Christians commonly referred to the whole Christian community on earth as “the saints”, not just those who had died and gone to heaven. How many more saints would there be today if that deep awareness of the effects of baptism were combined with the great weapons of frequent confession and Communion, Eucharistic adoration, the Rosary, and all the other developments in Christian spirituality?
And so likewise, as Karina approached to receive Jesus’s body, blood, soul and Divinity for the first time, I thought back to my own first Communion in the second grade. I have always vividly remembered the love and fervor with which I first welcomed Jesus into my soul—but that memory was colored by a melancholic awareness of how quickly that devotion lessened as my childhood wore on. No doubt like many other Catholics, I always had a sense that while it was possible to regain that original fervor and even surpass it, it would surely take me decades of work to get there. But it suddenly occurred to me that by virtue of those baptismal graces, I could, in a few minutes, receive Jesus with the same devotion I had at my first Communion. And so I did. My life has not been the same since.
As the Easter season drew to a close, I had a parallel experience attending a high school classmate’s ordination to the priesthood. This was my first ordination, and though the ceremony would no doubt have impressed me in any case, it was because I was watching a friend receive Holy Orders that I came away with an especially powerful sense of the greatness and dignity of the priesthood.
At that evening’s celebration, one of those toasting our new priest happened to be Karina’s fiancée. He referred to the gospel reading at the ordination mass, testifying to the central importance Jesus places on friendship (John 15:15). Father himself affirmed that it was largely through friendship that he had been given the ability to say yes to God’s call. In the few minutes I had to talk with the new priest, we shared our joy at our mutual friends’ wedding plans, and I told him what I had experienced at Karina’s baptism and its ongoing effect on my life. He remarked, “It’s amazing how God uses particular people to teach us these things. He could show us directly, but He chooses to do it through others.”
Why does God choose to work in this way? I suppose it’s first of all an extension of the Incarnational logic. It also reminds us of our ultimate dependence and keeps us humble. It bonds us with one another, associating our spiritual good with theirs, because we are supposed to help others, not just ourselves, get to heaven. Out of love for us, too, God wants to give us the privilege of participating in His gracious work.
I am baptized; I was taught the effects of baptism in school; I see people get baptized every year; but it took Karina’s baptism to make me really see what I had. Because I loved her before, the gift she received became the occasion of great grace for me, and because that will always be connected in my memory with her baptism, I love her more—I want to encourage her and nurture her in the faith. But I see now that I first loved her only because, how shamefully little I knew it, Christ had already loved me.
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