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It qualifies without a doubt as the most unusual baptism I've ever done.
My wife and I had to be away from the house for several hours on Wednesday of Holy Week, so we decided to head out of town for a hike in the wilderness of northern New Mexico and a visit to our favorite hot springs. In one of the pools, we fell into polite conversation with a middle-aged woman, her mother and a man, also middle-aged, whose relationship to the others I couldn't quite determine.
We learned that we lived in the same city, trading information about favorite restaurants. A couple of stray comments suggested that our political views did not exactly align with those of our new acquaintances, and it was clear that we came from different ethnic backgrounds and, very likely, socioeconomic stations.
As the conversation meandered, the middle-aged woman, Melanie, revealed it was her birthday and that she had hoped to be baptized that day in one of the larger pools. But that pool was closed, and her pastor had slipped and injured himself and was unable to come.
The crystalline morning apparently prompted spiritual reflections. The depth of Melanie's faith quickly became apparent, and Albert chimed in that he too had hoped to be baptized that day.
I've long been fascinated by the way Holy Week illustrates the dialectic of darkness and light. For Christians, the indigo skies of Good Friday and the darkness of the tomb eventually surrender to the light of Easter morning. The lectionary this year directs us to the Gospel of John, and the reading begins with Mary Magdalene approaching the tomb of Jesus "while it was still dark."
To borrow a Yiddish expression from the Jews, who celebrate their own dialectic of light and darkness this week of Passover, we know from darkness. Evil is all around us. It rears its ugly head almost everywhere — on the battlefields of the Donbas, in a Nashville school or in a Manhattan courtroom.
As someone who has studied the interaction between religion and culture for more years than I care to tally, I acknowledge that religion has often been complicit in acts of evil. The Roman Catholic Church's sponsorship of the Crusades and the Inquisition comes to mind, along with the Wars of Religion in early modern Europe. Terrorists too often claim religious sanction for their actions. Slavery and witch trials, manifest destiny and "reparative" therapy. Mormons bear responsibility for the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, and the Russian Orthodox Church will forever be tainted by its enabling of Vladimir Putin's murderous imperialism.
But Holy Week and Easter lead us through darkness and into the light. On this Easter morning, I will preach from the Gospel of John, but I will also refer to William Styron's epic novel about the Holocaust, "Sophie's Choice." At the book's conclusion, having stared into the face of evil, the "black edifice of Auschwitz," the central character, Stingo, awakens from a drunken stupor on the beach at Coney Island. "It was then," he tells the reader, "that in my mind I inscribed the words: 'Neath cold sand I dreamed of death / but woke at dawn to see / in glory, the bright, the morning star."
And then Styron adds the final line. "This was not judgment day — only morning. Morning: excellent and fair."
Our conversation at the hot springs did not include a discussion of "Sophie's Choice." Catharine and I looked at one another furtively, not knowing what to say. I certainly did not want to run afoul of their church's rules or be accused of sheep-stealing. That was the farthest thing from my mind.
I finally allowed that I was ordained, and that if Albert and Melanie truly wanted to be baptized, I might be able to help. They quickly warmed to the idea, as did Melanie's pious mother. Someone, apparently worried that I was from a different Christian denomination, asked rhetorically, "Does it matter?"
"Not to God," I replied. I didn't presume to speak for the absent pastor.
"Let's do it right here," someone else said. And we did. We gathered at the center of the circular pool, I said a brief prayer and baptized Melanie, then Albert by full immersion in the hot springs of Ojo Caliente. I dipped them backward in that ancient Christian rite so rich in symbolism — down into the depths, which represent death, then up again, sputtering, into the light.
We never learned the surnames of our hot springs acquaintances, nor they ours. And even though we may not have much in common, their names are known to God, and we share the bond of faith.
Easter Sunday reminds us that death is not the end of the story, that despite all appearances, evil will not prevail. It is the promise of hope and light, a message we need today more than ever. Hope, the most neglected of the theological virtues — faith, hope and love — is essential.
No, "this was not judgment day — only morning. Morning: excellent and fair."
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College. He is on leave in New Mexico.