A Pentecost reflection
Audy was a bright-eyed, smiling three-month old baby who arrived at the Church for her baptism in the arms of her proud father, Jason. I chatted with him for some moments at the entrance to the Church while a large number of relatives and friends of the family arrived. Soon the Church was rather full. It was Sunday afternoon and this was going to be my first baptism of a Filipino baby.
When the ceremony began I invited the parents and godparents of Audy to come forward and join me in the sanctuary. Then, to my surprise, what seemed like half the congregation started moving, and suddenly I was surrounded by 30 people. As I moved through the ceremony, making the sign of the cross on Audy’s forehead, and inviting the parents, and then the godparents to do likewise, all 30 godparents took me at my word and lined up to do so. The entire ceremony took 45 minutes, but no one seemed to mind: what mattered most for them was that Audy should feel immersed in the warmth and joy of the celebration.
Later that afternoon, during a party with Audy’s family and friends, I shared my feelings of surprise about the large number of godparents, since the majority of children that I had previously baptized had just one or two. Then, Jason related to me that most Filipino children have several godparents, though he agreed that 30 was a rather exceptionally large number. He also explained to me that in Filipino culture, godparents are generally young adults. Besides their spiritual role, they are expected to assist and support their godchild, especially in the event that one or both parents meets a major obstacle along the road of life, becomes ill, or dies. In a society where there is little government support for those who encounter misfortune, it is very important to build a network of friends to turn to for help. Through inviting 30 relatives and friends to become godparents for Audy, her parents were ensuring that she would be protected and supported no matter what disaster struck her or her family, even if she was left as an orphan.
As Jesus’ ministry came to a seemingly disastrous ending and he found himself staring at death, he was deeply concerned not just for himself, but for those he loved whom he would leave behind. He wanted them to know that they would continue to be protected and cared for and so he reassures them, “I will not leave you orphans” (Jn. 14:18). He promises to send them the Holy Spirit to help, guide and protect them after he had gone. He warns them that for a brief time everything will fall apart and they will feel abandoned by God, but then the Holy Spirit will take over, caring for and nurturing them so that their faith would grows to maturity.
As we become mature in our faith we come to a greater trust in God as a loving parent, like a caring father or mother. We also come to know Jesus as a brother or friend who accompanies us on the journey of life. Most of us would like to have a similar close relationship with the Holy Spirit, but so often we struggle to find a way to express it.
Images of the Holy Spirit as flames of fire, a strong wind, or a gentle dove seem abstract and impersonal. Perhaps the image we are searching for is a godparent. A godparent has a unique relationship with us that differs greatly from that of a parent or a sibling or a friend, yet it complements these other important relationships. Furthermore, the term ‘godparent’ reminds us that what makes this relationship special is the fact that it is grounded in faith. A godparent assumes the privilege and responsibility of caring for and nurturing the faith of their godchild until it reaches maturity. Our godparent can be understood, then, as the personal representative of the Holy Spirit who accompanies us on our faith journey.
Seeing one’s role in another person’s life as being the personal representative of the Holy Spirit brings an awesome responsibility. How can one person convey the mystery and beauty, the dynamism and creativity of the Holy Spirit to their godchild? Perhaps, that is why many Christians have two godparents. But even two seems too few! As in the case of Audy, the Holy Spirit probably needs 30 godparents to distribute all the gifts and blessings that God wishes us to receive at various times and at different stages of our life’s pilgrimage through this world.
Columban Fr Tim Mulroy is the Regional Director for the Missionary Society of St Columban in the United States. Originally from Ireland, he worked as a Columban Missionary in Japan before being appointed to the United States.
LISTEN TO: Reflection - The Holy Spirit as a godparent
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- Read more from The Far East - June 2017