Wednesday 17 April 2013

Letter to a Chinese student, baptised on Easter Sunday

Dear K.,

I don't mind admitting that I'm always a bit worried when I turn up to church on Easter Sunday. Worried that we'll get it all wrong. That there will be no joy, no amazement, no startling sense of the magic of the thing. I worry that the songs will be gloomy museum pieces, the prayers morbidly introspective, the sermon a self-congratulatory piece of apologetics or a few sneering scraps of historical criticism.

I worry that we will sing our songs and pray our prayers and have our tea and biscuits and then all go home afterwards without actually celebrating anything. This worries me especially here, in Australia, where (you will have noticed) we are not very good at celebrating things. On occasions when other people would celebrate, we Australians mill about uncertainly, hands in pockets, vaguely or acutely embarrassed. You can turn up to a wedding, a funeral, the birth of a baby, even Easter Sunday, and you'll always find us standing about like that, exchanging dry remarks about the traffic and the weather, just when we ought to be shouting, weeping, rending our clothes, kissing strangers, firing pistols in the air. We like the idea of celebration, we have heard of it, but it is a language we never learned, and our bodies don't know the rules.

That's why Australians don't do Easter very well. That's why I was worried, as always – half hopeful and half already-depressed – when I turned up to church on Easter Sunday.

Yet there you were, a university student from China. You had come to be baptised.

You looked pretty nervous when they brought you ought in front of everyone. Someone poured water into the big marble font. You made promises. You turned to Christ. You confessed your belief in God the creator, God the redeemer, God the sanctifier. Then you made a profound bow from the waist – we Australians could never bow like that – and water was poured over your heard, three times, your baptism, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Watching all this, I thought we would hear mighty trumpets and see the sky roll up like a scroll. When the water ran down your head I clutched the pew in front of me, expecting earthquakes. When the Name of the Trinity was pronounced I thought it was the end of the world. I expected zombies or something of that order – that all the graves would open and the grinning dead would rise. When you stood up straight and faced us, I thought the last judgment had come. I thought every woman who had ever longed for motherhood would know all of a sudden that she was, miraculously, with child. I thought the violent and the proud and the ones who stir up war would all be cast aside like rag dolls, and the refugees and homeless would be out there dancing in the streets in shining clothes. I thought we would all find out we'd won the lottery and we would all join hands together, and all the children would go home to find their houses made of gingerbread.

But there was nothing like that. Just you, standing there facing us with your wet black hair, your lovely Chinese eyes, smiling. A candle burning on the table. Water dripping on the floor.

I thought: a baptism – a real Easter!

And for one big glad moment I believed everything, Christ's dying and rising, the truest thing that ever happened, I believed it all and saw the truth of it as clear as water, saw it right there written on your face, written all over your baptised body.

I left the church and went out in the dark. Everything was the same, everything was different. I walked under the trees. A car went by. It might have been raining. Right there on the path I danced a little jig. It was Easter Sunday, Christ was risen, you were risen with him, it was the first day of creation, and I felt for all the world like Fred Astaire.

Yours, &c.,

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