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A Little Baby is Christened at Iver's by Kaj Munk

Translated by R. P. Keigwin

In the middle of the blustering black night there is a knock on the window. Cautiously. Apologetically. You have gone to bed late and not long fallen asleep, so you can't really believe you are being disturbed. You turn over on the other side. Then there comes another knock, louder, more insistent...and a voice: "Hallo!" "Well," you answer, "what is it? "Will you go over to Iver's and christen a little baby?

There is somehow a special joy for a parson in being raked up out of his beauty sleep in the middle of the night simply because there is need of him. For a moment he feels that he is just as useful a member of society as a doctor. In a twinkling he has coat and trousers on and has snatched up a prayer-book. There is not even time to reach for his cassock—that can stay on its peg—for it's a matter of life and death. And now the Ford begins humming a hymn; away it goes, while every house in the parish is lying asleep with darkened windows. Only one has a light in it.

The kitchen is steamy from all the warm water that is being used to- night, damp in a strangely solemn way for such an ordinary kitchen, though already there is mingled with this the aroma of coffee, dear symbol of everyday, the home beginning to slip back to the normal again. A child's eyes peer at you from its cot, drowsily dull, now realising for the first time that this hour of the day also exists. The father emerges with his 1-year-old on his arm, likewise woken up by the unusual happenings of the night and evidently mystified as to why all approach to Mother is forbidden. 'Sh,'sh,'sh!—the father tries to lull the baby to sleep. Then the midwife appears and takes over from the embarrassed man. And we stoop as we go through the low door and in to the battlefield itself.

 Inside the narrow room with the many beds, two big and five little, are four people. I see them at once, all four. Iver, who follows me in, sees no doubt only the two. There lies his wife, already decked out in white, though her forehead is still drenched with sweat, her face all covered with red spots, and her eyes half wild with the agony she has been through. She tries to give me a smile, but she can't quite manage it; it is so short a time since she came from the fighting-line. They have stuck their bayonets into her belly, and there is a faint smell of gas in her nostrils and a nauseous taste in her mouth. Added to that, my presence gives her an inkling that it is not absolutely certain that the victory has been won; it might still be wrested from her grasp. And there, too, lies the "victory", in an old-fashioned cradle on wheels, swaddled up in warm blankets; and, beside him, bending down over him, stands the angel of Life, breathing warmth into his body and encouraging the frail little heart to keep on with its unaccustomed beats. But over there in the dark corner stands another; I know him well, I have seen him so often when I have come out to my parishioners, the old and the sick. From the sockets of those hollow eyes he flings the angel of Life a glance of stern enquiry: "I wonder how strong you are, if I should now decide to try my strength with you." But the angel gives the glance no reply; takes apparently no notice of him; merely continues his efforts for the child.

Tepid water is poured into a basin, a clean towel put out, the holy rite can begin.

I do not really know the significance of baptism. I know a large number of explanations of it, and I know an even greater number of objections to it—from Soren Kierkegaard's for once low-pitched protest against the splashing of water on a child's head, to the most ethereal views deploring that Christianity should be turned by the sacraments into an unspiritual religion. I also remember so well how in my earliest youth, precisely in my Kierkegaard period, I sat in a country church while my in'ards retched with nausea at this ridiculous dunce of a Government official solemnly questioning a baby in arms that was as likely to answer him with one end as the other. I know that neither David nor Socrates nor even Gandhi was baptised; that the child which dies in its mother's womb may have at least as much right to eternity as the greybeard; and that it is a revolting thought that God should revenge himself on the children whose parents have neglected or refused to have them baptized. I know that for most Danish members of the established church christening and naming may almost be said to come to the same thing; that it would be absurd to suppose that "a germ is implanted" or that anything else whatever of a magical kind happens to the baby; that baptized and unbaptized grow up together and turn out exactly the same. All this I know, and a great deal more besides. But for the time being, as I stoop down over the new-born little boy, I only know that this is a great and holy moment.

Candidates for confirmation in Danish parishes learn from their catechism that to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost is to be baptized into communion with the Triune God and participation in his grace and bounty. What Jesus Christ has won for us all, this he has given to every single one of us in our baptism. And in this way we have, being baptized, come into communion with the Triune God; we are incorporated into Christ's kingdom; we have become children of the Father, and participators in the working of divine grace by the Holy Spirit...And then they go and tell us that Luther did away with the Latin! Do they suppose that village children have any idea of the meaning of "communion", or "participation", or "incorporation"? Or of an expression like "the working of divine grace"? Not to mention "washing of regeneration", being "justified by grace", and all the other piling up by the theologians of Pelion on Ossa. That might be all very well with things that are beyond them anyway, even though it would of course be better if they were in Latin.

But what are we to say of a harangue like the following? "Note. In baptism we are born again; that is to say, a new man is born in us. But this new man shall grow more and more, until it be perfected hereafter; and our sinful nature, or the old man, shall more and more be overcome and brought into subjection, until it is destroyed. This shall come to pass by the grace of the Holy Spirit, which sanctifies us through faith"...There's a nice consignment of Darwinism for you, ready for unloading at one of the main centers of Christianity.

But my thoughts are not of atonement or of old Adam or of justification or of any other textual accountancy and elaborated rights and wrongs, now, as I turn back the woollen blankets, and the pink, puckered little old man's face comes in sight. They have not dared to wash it more than was strictly necessary; clots of blood have coagulated about the tiny forehead. Little human child, have you taken part in the war already—been right to the front—so much in the thick of it that it cost you blood? So that was the first thing you encountered in this world. Well, the second—look, it's me...No, not me, for I stand here in the name of another. One who said: "Come hither to me, and I will give you peace." So then the first thing you saw, little child, was war; but, immediately afterwards, he who is peace. He it is that now sets his sign upon your blood-stained brow and your feebly pounding breast and smiles to you and says: "Suffer the little children to come unto me."

I know perfectly well that you don't understand a word of all this. But if all goes well—no, I must not say that; but if all is permitted to go as we hope it may, then a day will come when you go up before the altar in our church in order, with me, to recall these moments here. By that time you will already be quite a little man, who has even begun to think of cigarettes. And if God in that hour grants me success, then I know that you in an inward flash will come to see that it is not I that stand there. My black cassock will become shining white, a coat woven in one piece; my ramshackle figure will straighten, become authoritative and masterful, itself one piece like the coat, and my low forehead with its myriad fugitive thoughts will become high and calm and cool—and then you will know whom you belong to in life and death and all eternity.

I nod down to the little one and begin to recite the words that are the church's profession of faith through the ages right from pagan times—those venerable, unambiguous, almost untheological, poetic, beautiful words about the enemy we must shun, the creator and saviour and preserver to whom we belong. And Mother is so anxious to answer yes for her child, but her strength is hard put to it, and so we all help her by answering too. And now the time has come. Carefully Father lifts the tiny mite up on the pillows and lays it in the mother's arms, while himself continuing to support it, and I dip my fingers in the water...

Water! The brook winds through the flowering meadows; the lake spreads cool and blue and life-giving amid the torrid hills of the desert; the ocean swells in titanic power and proffers death in its arms to the defiant, then smooths itself out again, carries messages between the nations and gives salty freshness and strength to youth plunging naked into it. The dew-drop on the straw mirrors the star as it sways; sprightly as the nightingale's song is the babble of the fountain; refreshing the splash of rain on the parched fields. Under the earth invisible currents bring life to every plant; the sun coaxes the water up through stem and tendrils and turns it into wine glowing red as the stream that is life itself to our hearts...Hail, master from the waves of Gennesareth, who didst choose water in token of brotherhood between thee and us! Then I link a new small human name with the great names of eternity, and the little chap is put back again, and I stroke the tired mother's forehead with "congratulations and blessings", and I call upon the good old poet at Soro [Footnote: B. S. Ingemann (1789- 1862)] and let him speak for us as he alone can:

   "God's son himself was once a child and in a manger laid,
     and promises of joy in heaven to little ones he made,
       and flowers that in paradise are blooming.

   God's son he loves us so, the friend of children all,
     and on his arm he bears the child to God."

Then Father folds his hands and, in the wonderful happiness of her relief, Mother begins to cry; and, as I steal a glance over to the corner, the stern-looking gentleman is transformed. He seems to me to have merged into one with the angel, and my heart beats at once fearfully and at ease.

Later comes the presentation in church. Yes, that is a proud day. It has become the custom for the mother herself to be godmother, and it is no mean custom. Has she not every right to be? Right to prove to the whole congregation that now the struggle has been proudly brought to an end, for this time. Let the organ peal out, let people crane their necks, let God smile down from his heaven. High on his victorious mother's arm the little conqueror makes his triumphant entry into life.

 
 
 

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