“We celebrate today a holy moment,” Pastor Kevin said, kind of excited, bouncing on the balls of his feet like he does sometimes on Sunday mornings. I get a little up from my snooze-in-the-pews state of mind. This sounds exciting.
“We are having a baptism,” he continues.
I’m a little disappointed. Baptisms are common enough occurrences, rituals really. We all know the set piece, we all know the words to say, we all know when the water will wash the baby’s head. But by now I’m thinking holy moment. Maybe there is something that I don’t know…or at least I don’t think about.
Baptism is a holy moment, I realize. Sins are forgiven before they are committed, a promise is made by the parents are made for a journey through a lifetime that extends right into eternity. The promise on the part of the parents is impressive, but the promise of God in return is unbelievable. Who forgives sins ahead of time? Gives carte blanche to any behavior, then promises unending love regardless of what hurt is to come? Makes lifetime promises, even, when life is so unpredictable, circumstances so changing? Who dares to do that? Only God. And eternity? Who can understand what that even looks like? A thousand years? A million? A billion? Or something outside of time itself?
Maybe that is why we make it a ritual: because the content is unbelievable. A ritual is the method by which we disguise the unbelievable and make it acceptable.
We have rituals in everyday life. Like traveling on an airplane. We buy our tickets, check our luggage, line up, find our seats, stow our carry-ons, buckle our seat belts, put our tray tables and seat backs in the upright position, and kind of listen while the flight attendant gives the standard safety talk. All of this makes us forget that we will soon be seven miles above God’s green earth traveling at air speeds that are more that double world’s strongest hurricane–air that is rock hard at that speed and so thin that a human being couldn’t stay conscious for more that a few seconds at that altitude. And between us and this absolute death: a thin skin of aluminum and the tinkering of a thousand anonymous aeronautical engineers. The ritual turns what is intuitively impossible into something that seems plausible, even certain.
The same thing is true of surgery, both for the patient and the surgeon. The surgeon takes on the role of the priest, the operating room become hallowed ground, medical guidelines become doctrine. The hands are scrubbed, the staff is gowned, and the operating field is prepped and draped, a ritual. Then the unbelievable happens: one human being enters another human being’s body, something malignant is removed or something broken is restored. Healing that is intuitively impossible becomes probable.
The great thing about a ritual is that it eases us into believing something that seems impossible is totally believable. The terrible thing about ritual is that we forget that something impossible has been overcome. Miracles become ordinary events. We travel from L.A. to New York overnight, the cancer is removed, the baby gets promised eternal life–all miracles–and we get through it and go to lunch.
During my practice, I followed the traditions of medicine and had a continuous awareness of the science behind each illness and injury. I followed the rituals, which is good, of course. Even though every operation began with the unspoken belief that something that could not be otherwise cured could be healed, they were rituals. Cases became the ordinary events of my life. I lost track of the miraculous.
So I’m glad Kevin reminded me about holy moments, the miracle of healing, the miracle of flying, and the miracle promise that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven, no circumstance that cannot be overcome, no brokenness that cannot be healed.