“Life is a circle,” my cousin said. Or maybe it was “life is a cycle”—you could translate the Greek word either way.
We were talking about my daughter’s baptism, which took place on Sunday in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I grew up. My cousin came from the island of Corfu, Greece, to act as Amalía’s godmother, and we were reminiscing about a part in the ceremony when the godparents, carrying the baby, walk three times in a circle around the baptismal font.
“It’s like the dance of Isaiah at your wedding,” she pointed out, before making the circle/cycle remark. During that ritual, which took place on Corfu on 10/10/10, my brand-new husband and I walked three times around the altar table with our wedding sponsors—the same people who acted as our daughter’s godparents almost two years later—while our guests threw rice at us with such zeal that the priest shielded himself behind the Bible.
A Greek Orthodox baptism is action-packed. It starts with the godparents reciting exorcism prayers on the babies behalf, with the priest asking, “Do you renounce Satan?” and the godparents agreeing that they do. (Amalía’s baptism was less action-packed than the Catholic one in The Godfather, when Michael Corleone, acting as his nephew’s godfather, renounces Satan on the baby’s behalf as Mafia dons all over the tri-city area are being gunned down at his behest. But I digress.)
Then it goes on to include full immersion of the baby in water, ritual tonsuring (the priest cuts the baby’s hair), Chrismation (also called Confirmation) as the baby is anointed in holy oil, and the baby’s first Communion (my Catholic husband was delighted to learn that we won’t have to host parties for a First Communion or Confirmation for Amalía, since the Greek Orthodox baptism is three sacraments in one, the religious equivalent of one-stop shopping).
It’s a truly beautiful ritual, despite the yelling of the displeased Amalía, who enjoyed the exorcism prayers and the party but not much of the stuff in between. (“It’s good if the baby shouts during her baptism,” someone told me sweetly. “It means she’ll scare away Satan.” Amalía screams like that every time we interrupt her playing to change her diaper, so I think Satan is already terrified of her.)
But I didn’t really focus on the symbolism of the ritual, the baby being born again into a new life as a Christian, until the event itself, because I had a few other things on my mind. These big fat Greek baptisms do not plan themselves! And with the godmother coming from Greece and the godfather from Nicaragua, along with various and sundry relatives in tow, I wanted to make sure everyone enjoyed the event. So the baptism planning committee (me, my mom, my aunt and everyone else we could rope into helping us) spent a lot of time on little details—ordering witness pins (me), arranging flowers (my mom), putting together a video of Amalia’s first 10 months (my husband and sister, Amalía’s Tía Marina).
And I’m starting to think that this is part of the point of an elaborate ritual, to bring together the sacred and the mundane. A ritual like this is able both to make you absorb the enormity of a moment, as when my husband and I circled the baptismal font with Amalía and her godparents, four adults who were pledging to raise this little baby into “a woman of faith” as her godfather put it; and also to make you forget the magnitude of the situation in the rush of planning and the avalanche of details.
The day of the baptism, once we had finished putting together a wicker basket with all of the baby’s baptismal needs, my “aunt”, the Big Eleni, who came to help my mother with child care two weeks before I was born and never left, looked at me, tearful, and said, “I can’t believe that my child has a child who is about to be baptized.”
I realized then how fast Amalía is growing, and how exciting, and terrifying that is for me, and for all of us who love her. It would be crippling to have that thought—of how much we all love and hope for her—in the front of my mind every second of every day. (This is why I hate the play “Our Town”, which implies that we should live each day as if we were already dead, aware of how fleeting life is—if everyone did that the world would be full of weepy messes who never got anything done and never really enjoyed the moment, but kept bracing for it to end.)
I enjoyed designing Amalía’s invitations, picking out the favors for her reception, dithering over the luncheon menu, partly because I love a theme, and partly because it kept me from pondering the importance of the ritual. And then, once all that was done, having lost myself in the details freed me up to enjoy it all, to let the magnitude of the moment wash over me, and then recede, so I could get on with experiencing the day.
Amalía’s baptism was a cycle, and a circle, in many ways. Entering the ceremony, Amalía wore an 115 year old christening gown that her father, grandmother and great-grandfather all wore at their baptisms. We re-created a photo of my four aunts standing together as they had at my parents wedding in 1970. And at one point, Amalía raised her little hands and did a some solo Greek dancing, just as I had at my own baptism, which took place in the same church as hers did 36 years ago.
But, as much as the day was about looking back, it was, like standing on a point in a circle, about looking forward, too. In his toast Emilio said that he hoped everyone in the room would join us again, decades from now, to witness Amalía’s wedding. I know that’s impossible, but I hope that some, if not most, of those who attended will be there to watch her grow and to see the fulfillment of the prayer that was said at our wedding, as at all Greek Orthodox weddings: “Grant that they may see their children’s children, like newly planted olive trees, all around their table.”