It was a good day for picking wild apples. A little chilly, but sunny and sweet for late October.Trees all over Vermont have made crazy loads of fruit this year. Since it’s our first fall living fulltime on this land, I’ve been walking around tasting apples to see which trees might want to barter future fruit for some pruning and feeding next spring.
Wandering outside and picking apples is more than a luxury. It’s a relief, when:
1) you’ve spent the previous weekend stuck in traffic in the New York Tri-State Area where there surely are more cars than apples; and
2) you’ve traveled there in the first place because your cousin’s baby is being baptized thanks to some fictional fall guy who ate a forbidden apple, offended a deity, and passed along Original Sin, a sexually transmitted spiritual disease that most Christians believe infects the soul of every newborn human.*
Likewise, when you don’t go to church anymore, it’s arresting what people will accept—or at least ignore—while in the pews.
The traffic thing sucks, of course (and I was pressed into contributing to it, because even fewer Americans believe in public transportation than in evolution). But driving down from northern Vermont, and eventually sitting in bumper-to-bumper, first-gear-max traffic for two hours, you can smell the insanity people learn to accommodate as part of their daily routines. Likewise, when you don’t go to church anymore, it’s arresting what people will accept—or at least ignore—while in the pews.To an apostate such as myself, what’s really going on at a christening can look a lot different than the official story.
Adam, Eve, and Odysseus
My mother’s side of the family is Greek Orthodox. The sin-tainted baby’s father, my cousin Odysseus (not his real name but it’s just as Greeky), is a doctor. Odysseus’ wife, let’s call her Elizabeth, works in fashion. They’re kind, educated, sophisticated people. Neither believes their little girl requires Original Sin removal, but they’re sensitive to their families’ religious traditions. I know more about his than hers, but it’s pretty thick among his parents and all the aunts and uncles in Greece. As Odysseus told me on the phone, “I don’t believe any of this, but I’m not going to be a hard-ass about it.”
Despite his disbelief, Odysseus has stood as godfather, or koumbaros, for cousins’ kids, and describes it jokingly as a “baby exorcism.” In the Greek church, not only does the Orthodox godparent have to renounce Satan three times on the kid’s behalf, he or she has to blow in the air three times and then spit in the air three times (or at least pretend-spit) to banish Satan. And that’s before they even get into the church sanctuary.
(I, a hard ass, have a few times declined being a godparent for friends and it’s not even because I don’t believe in a god: I have always been prone to inappropriate laughter. We’re talking funerals, couples counseling, pelvic exams. Goes way back: Two orders of nuns couldn’t slap it out of me.)
Anyway, for me, the baptism of Odysseus’s daughter was a chance to see family members I really like without having to drive through snowstorms for the winter holidays. Plus it was a sure thing there’d be major Greek food afterward.
I’d read that the Eastern churches’ take on original sin is milder than the spiritual-train-wreck scenario of the western church, which leans much heavier on Augustine (definitely a hard ass). The Orthodox believe that all humans inherit the “consequences” of the sin of Adam and Eve; in the west, however the baby also bears the shared guilt of that sin.
Just as bizarre, though, is the belief shared by both dialects that the primary consequence of that disobedience was death. Check your Genesis: it says death entered the world with Adam’s sin. Never mind the necessity of death to natural systems, the primal sacrifice that feeds new life, the maple sprout rising through the dark rot of the forest floor. No, in the Genesis story we were all set for eternity. We weren’t going to die, not us! But then somebody had to blow it. (And of course..female.) That alone—denying the deep, essential earthiness of death–should be a sin in itself.
Why perpetuate this ancient justification for life’s struggles?
But who knows how many of the 20 or so guests witnessing this christening actively believed in the official story—that a baby’s soul was being cleansed of remote wrongdoing? This particular baby was already a miracle—she’d been born more than two months early and had been hospitalized for weeks while her parents lived through a purgatory of worry. Meeting this now-robust little girl, and welcoming her into a world of possibilities, would have been celebration enough without having to repair some fruit-induced biblical damage.
Of course, rituals never have just one meaning. Any christening extends beyond the biblical to invoke and reinforce social contracts—the alignment of the godparents with this child and her parents, the recognition that we’re all in this together, the importance of water and community to life. One feature of a Greek Orthodox christening goes further and, to this nonbeliever, speaks more eloquently than any of the religious justifications could: the olive oil.
Baste That Baby!
We’re not just talking chrism, the perfumed and sanctified olive oil used in anointing—lots of religions give a smudge of that. We’re talking the need for towels. Nobody beats the Greeks in the olive oil department: Before the child is totally dunked three times in the baptismal font, women relatives undress the child and the koumbara (godmother) rubs the baby’s entire body in olive oil. Everywhere. Odysseus says the priest will tell you if you missed a spot. The church’s printed program explained that this ritual symbolizes the olive branch brought back to Noah after the flood, signifying God’s new covenant with humanity.
Nice try. Thousands of years before that story was written (even before its Mesopotamian model, the Epic of Gilgamesh) the olive tree was deeply rooted in Greek life. There are petrified 50,000-year-old olive trees in the volcanic rock of the Cyclades. Sophocles said, “The olive tree feeds the children,” and that was just the opening of the daily litany: the fruit, oil, wood, and leaves fed the people, lighted and heated their homes, cured their illnesses, cleansed their bodies, lit their temples, anointed their dead, honored their gods. Today in Greece, olive trees still outnumber Greeks—twelve to one—and the people use more oil than any other culture. You don’t butter your bread: You dip it in olive oil. You cook with generous green-gold pours of it. You set out olives for meals, for friends. The olive tree reaches wider than a branch in a biblical reference: it is sustenance itself. Olive trees can live through a millennium, can bear fruit for centuries, and thrive in the rocky land even though the country’s historical forests were plundered long ago.
And olive trees are more forgiving than gods: Neglect them and they will still feed you.
After the ceremony, we arrived at a Greek restaurant owned by a family that belongs to my aunt and uncle’s prosperous church. Odysseus and Elizabeth had reserved a private room, and we found our places. Every few feet of dining table was laid with a basket of bread, small plates, and a bottle of jewel-toned Greek olive oil. Through a meal that lasted hours and featured six courses of traditional foods, the taste of olives was on everyone’s tongue. The toasts to the parents and grandparents, to the newly baptized baby, to the aunts, uncles, cousins, and guests—all were infused with the oil’s earth-grass-fruit-and finally pepper at the back of the palate.
It’s because I love ritual that I wish we had more resonant ones. Unlike Catholics, the Greeks have held to their rich ceremonial aesthetics. Even a mid-day christening on a Saturday meant icons, a huge gold font roped with flowers, a little old robed psaltis guy off to the side chanting responses, wave after wave of incense, processions around the font with large candles, handing out the tiny crosses on white ribbons and the small silk pockets of Jordan almonds. Beautiful—but could we instead base our rituals on how things really are? Why repeat this fiction of cosmic failure whose equally fictional consequences were death, alienation, inherited sin, and the long delayed climax of a bloody redemption? Why perpetuate this ancient justification for life’s struggles–that a breach tore us from eternal, perfect life to one lived mortally, by the sweat of our brow? Why, when we now know how we got here, that we belong here, and that Edenic stasis has never been how our universe evolves?
Gather family and friends together. Light the candles, swing the incense, and rub that baby with olive oil. We welcome you, pure and undimmed, into this imperfect life. The path here is love. We try our best to walk it, even though sometimes we stumble off into the weeds. We will see that you have what you need. We cover your body in olive oil because nature is generous, like the olive tree. And like all real trees, it is the Tree of the Knowledge of Life, not of good and evil. Like all trees, it nurtures throughout its body uncountable beings who both build up and break down. Like all of us, you will experience joy and pleasure, and yes, struggle and death, because that’s how the universe teaches us. It’s quite a ride.Those of us here–we fellow humans on your path, in your tribe—we’ve got your back.
Now pass the olive oil. Let’s eat.
* St. Augustine actually wrote in City of God that original sin was transmitted by semen: Because of Adam’s sin, all human semen is “shackled by the bond of death.” Also, since human semen didn’t make Jesus, he had no original sin. I really don’t want to think any more about that one.
Been to a ritual lately that was beautiful and based in reality? Do tell in the comments.