A little less than a year after John Harry came into the world, Lisa had to go back to work. And so, unlike his first-born sister, my second-born son had to learn to drink from a bottle. Years earlier, when faced with the same dilemma, Lisa rented an impressive machine that allowed her to pump milk, which was frozen, and later, reconstituted on demand. It wasn’t so much that she minded being turned into the equivalent of a human Holstein. What really bugged her, were the many occasions in which too much of the liquid gold was thawed, and then had to be discarded. And so, when John Harry was calved, it was determined that she would nurse him during her months of maternal leave, but we would formula feed him when she went back to work.
That decision created an opening for many father and son moments like the one that occurred on a camping vacation when my boy was a little less than a year old. Just as the nocturnal animals were tucking themselves in for the day, my son awoke to the symphony of birds inviting us to come out of our tent and play. Patiently, his chubby little body rested on my left arm, while my right arm prepared his bottle over a camp stove. I’m not saying that I always greeted his early morning stirrings with enthusiasm. I have discovered over the years that it is more often a sense of duty, than fickle fleeting feelings, that propels proper parenting. But what I have also found, is that once the snowplow of parental conviction pushes fatigue aside, space is created for deep bonding.
After filling up on a warm mixture of formula, and affection, John Harry nestled into my shoulder as I picked up my bible and prayed through the readings of the day. The Gospel, like this Sunday’s Gospel selection, was all about a dad (i.e. Zechariah) and his baby son, who shared the same name as my boy (i.e. John). The line from this Sunday’s reading, that jumped out at me eighteen years ago, was the universal question on the heart and mind of every reflective dad with a baby on his arm, “What will this child be?” (Luke 1: 66a). I found myself, like John the Baptist’s dad, Zechariah, praying a heartfelt benediction over this pudgy little bundle (Luke 1: 68-79).
When my family awoke, I invited them to come with me to a scenic overlook near our campsite. Standing on that holy ground, his big sister, his mother, and I touched his feet to the ground, and poured water over them as we blessed him and the unfolding journey that lay ahead of him.
Now, you may be thinking, “Stuff like that is fine for frustrated priests like Doctor Tom, but what’s this have to do with me?” It seems to me that, like Zechariah, each and every parent exercises a priestly mission relative to their children. It doesn’t have to be something so dramatic as a sacramental reminiscent of Baptism, performed on a scenic over-look. Every single meal over which a loving parent presides, has a Eucharistic or Sabbath dimension to it. Each and every meal prayer, each and every bedtime prayer, every sacred ritual, whether explicitly religious or not, communicates divinity.
In graduate school, I learned the importance of ritual in the formation of family identity and the identity of family members. Ritual brings order out of chaos. It sooths and grounds children and adults alike. It silently communicates what is valuable to family members. Naturally, my graduate studies got me to reflecting upon the sacred words and rituals that my own family utilizes. I’ve heard it said that the least wrong thing you can say about God is that “God is love” (1Jn 4:8). The ways that a family ritually communicates love, then, is a kind of liturgy that little-by-little sculpts a soul into the image and likeness of the One who is love itself.
When my children were little, my wife would hug from one side, I’d hug from the other, creating a child sandwich. Lisa would say, “I’m the bread.” I’d say, “I’m the bread.” The child would say, “I’m the peanut butter and jelly.” With that, Lisa and I would make little munching sounds on and around the child’s head, creating enough laughter and delight for everyone involved in the “huggle” (i.e. a family term for when more than two hug). I believe that such homey (and sometimes homely) little rituals as these, perform a kind of pre-evangelization. When a child, who has been through a few hundred rituals like this, and later hears about a God who delights in them, it is not a stretch for them to grasp it. Down in their bones, they know what it is like to be the object of a father or mother’s delight.
What are the sacred words and rituals that communicate love in your family, in your marriage, in your community, or in your friendships? As children age into adolescents, have those words or rituals changed? In my family, when our kids started circling adolescence, the peanut butter and jelly ritual sometimes elicited an eye roll, and the observation, “Isn’t it a little strange that this peanut butter and jelly sandwich is eating itself?” (We acknowledge the point, but continue to push through the playful resistance).
Who has sculpted your soul through repeated rituals of forgiveness, repair, affection, and love? Where are you exercising your priestly function through sacred words and ritual acts of love?