The Handmaid’s Tale Is Not Here for Your Baby Dedication

In many churches across this country, when a child is born there is a short […]

Sarah Condon / 7.2.19

In many churches across this country, when a child is born there is a short ceremony called a Baby Dedication. The child and his or her parents are processed in front of the congregation and they make promises to raise the baby in the way of faith.

These ceremonies have always fallen a bit flat for me. Mostly because I am terrible at keeping promises. Especially when it comes to how I plan on raising my children. My parenting is full of failed self-driven covenants made in the sight of the Lord. This is why I baptize my babies. I just cannot trust myself. I understand that in this culture of autonomy and “choices,” many parents do not want to make the choice for their children to be baptized. They want the children to be able to choose. Frankly, I feel like that is too much to ask of everyone. But maybe I am just lazy. 

This is not to discount the powerful grace of adult baptism. Some of the most moving baptisms I have attended have been people who have been battered and bruised by the throws of life and ultimately decided that they wanted to belong to Jesus at 35 or even 85 years of age. But it is worth noting that we do not do “dedications” for adults who will eventually (fingers crossed!) be baptized. The reality of the world has hit them and they are looking to get thrown into the nearest vat of holy water while someone speaks the love of the Lord over them. We baptize people in need. Which is why I am a huge advocate for baptizing babies. They are people in need too.

In a jaw dropping moment in the latest season of The Handmaid’s Tale, infant baptism is contrasted with baby dedication. Before June was a handmaid, before she was expected to have sex with other people’s husbands in order to give other people babies, before she was forced to live in Gilead, she actually lived a pretty normal life. She was a wife, mother, daughter, and friend. 

In a flashback, from a beautiful stained-glass-window-lit past, June and her family gather at a Catholic church to have their infant daughter baptized. And it is so tender and human, it hurts.

The godfather is running late so they decide to go on without him. The godmother is June’s lesbian best friend. June’s mother is there and she keeps insisting that the baby does not have to be baptized just as the baby is about to be baptized. She begs her daughter, “Do you think your father would care? He spent a hell of a lot more time at Fenway than he did at Mass! You cannot let religion control you! It’s what they all want!”

June manages to roll her eyes as only an adult daughter can roll them to a mother who just won’t shut up. June’s husband says over the entire messy ordeal, “Look, we’re here. And we’re doing this.”

Which is perhaps my favorite description of infant baptism I have heard maybe ever.

Look, we’re here. And we’re doing this. 

The cinematic contrast that follows is sharp. In the next scene we are forced into a harsh shadowy future. People are filing into a colorless auditorium for a Baby Dedication. June is there with rows of other handmaids, donning that hauntingly red habit. Mothers of Gilead, in their signature emerald green, process in holding other people’s babies as though they were their own. They are paraded across a stage with their husbands. Everything is deeply organized and inarguably perfect. There are no feminist boomer grandmothers with loud opinions. There are no missing godfathers or lesbian godmothers. In fact, there are no godparents at all. There is simply silence and order as the leader’s voice emerges: 

“Blessed Fathers and Mothers, by coming before God and his people, do you declare your desire to dedicate yourself and your child to the Lord?”

As my husband and I sat on the couch together watching this religious ceremonial contrast unfold I looked at him with my hand across my mouth and said, “Who wrote this? The bad guys are doing baby dedications!”

But there is some real world theology happening here. In Gilead, everything is about self-control, or else. You are to follow the moral standards for your role. And as human-wrought standards tend to go, these expectations are utterly illogical. Like the reproductive practices handmaids are forced into. And so in Gilead, children are regarded as the most important possession, which means that they are almost always taken away from the women who give birth to them. They may say that they honor the traditional roles of women and men in order to keep women “safe,” but in practice they cut off the finger of a female character who reads in public. It is a society based on the idea that we can control ourselves—yet, of course, we cannot. It is no wonder that Gilead would not practice infant baptism. Because infant baptism is the ultimate act of giving up control. 

When we baptize babies we simply give away the gift of mercy. We do not withhold it. We do not expect them to earn it. And we certainly do not anticipate them understanding it (and by the way, who does really?). But perhaps most importantly, we are not in charge of it. Jesus is. And he is a far better promise maker than you or I could ever be.

And giving this baptism, this beloved-ness, signed, sealed, and delivered, to a small child is incredible to me. Babies have nothing to offer us. They demand to be fed. They demand to be changed. They are not contributing members of society. 

Infant baptism also feels inherently biblical to me. When Jesus tells us not to get in the way of children because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them, it is not a sentimental moment. We worship a Risen Lord who makes young children the most valued members of humanity. Of course they should get the keys to the kingdom from the very beginning. Who knows? Maybe they are running the joint?

Side note: What kind of crazy ass religion have I signed up for?

And yet, here I am, Lord.

Baby dedications worry me. I worry that parents are taking on a bigger project than the average human being can accomplish. It is simply too much to dedicate myself to raising a child in the faith. I worry that I will get things wrong. I worry that I will make atheists out of my children. And if the end game is that through my insights, sheer will, and obsessive prayer that they will eventually ask to be baptized as adolescents, then you will find me asleep on a church pew, because I have given up.

So for me, infant baptism feels like the easy way out. It feels like grace that’s so cheap it’s free, it feels a sure bet that only Jesus can follow through on, it feel like throwing a baby into the Lord’s arms and yelling, “IT IS TOO HARD, YOU DO IT.” 

If they have to choose Jesus later in life, if they have to choose to be baptized, then I might very well ruin that for them. I am not sure that I would have chosen it. Seriously. 

If you have ever watched The Handmaid’s Tale, then you know it is a difficult show to enjoy. It can feel desolate and hopeless for entire episodes. And yet there are these odd moments of prayer, or rowdy but wonderful baptisms, that keep me coming back. There are beautiful nods to faith along the way. They are subtle, but they are there.

The most important thing to know about the baby that June and her husband decided to baptize is her name. She is Hannah. As in Hannah, the woman who went to God weeping and praying for a child. Hannah, who is the very embodiment of that longing to be a mother. And now, in The Handmaid’s Tale, she is Hannah, a child who was taken from her mother, her father, and from all those who loved her the most. Except Jesus. It turns out she’d been baptized as an infant and her parents had already thrown baby Hannah into his arms. She could never be taken from him. Because she was given to Jesus from the very beginning.