Ann George becomes a godmother for the third time
My school, built of golden Jerusalem stone, was a converted missionary hospital building surrounded by mature, well-tended gardens, lavishly watered by our Palestinian gardener every morning. Many of the staff lived on-site, including our Principal, his wife and their 2 boys, George and Tom, who both attended the school. One day, quite unexpectedly, the Principal asked me into his office and announced that Tom, now aged 11, had decided to be baptized, and had asked for me to be his godmother. Tom knew that he was old enough to ‘answer for himself’ but he still wanted godparents.
I was a bit startled, on several accounts. First of all, I was deeply touched and, let’s be honest, surprised, to be asked, and secondly, as the family was at that time attending the local baptist church where most of our staff and some of our pupils worshipped, this would be a very public occasion, with parents, pupils and the expatriate community well in evidence. The Principal then told me that the ceremony was going to be held, not at the church, but in the Sea of Galilee, and (he became quite gleeful at this point) that I would get very wet!
I mulled over what to give my new godson. I was already godmother to 2 boys, the sons of good friends, but in both cases they were baptized as infants in Surrey and Sussex village churches. The presents I’d given them had been appropriate for their baby status; Tom would need something more adult. Finally, I went to my friend, the Armenian jeweller in David Street, and asked him to make a plain gold cross, with the words ‘Thomas’, ‘Galilee’ and the date engraved on the back, and I then selected a strong, chunky gold chain. This present, I hoped, would help Tom to keep his baptism in mind throughout his life.
With my present, suitably wrapped, in my bag along with my towel, and my swimsuit under my dress, I climbed into my Principal’s car one Sunday and we drove up to the Galilee along the Jordan Valley Road, straight as a die, shimmering with heat. After Tiberias the road curves round to follow the western bank of the Sea of Galilee, and the huge expanse of water is fully revealed. In the distance, through the heat haze, we could just see the mountains where the River Jordan has its headwaters, and I remembered the time I had visited Banias (Caesarea Philipi) in April and seen the springs gushing out and spurting like fountains through the ancient pavements, then roaring down to become the River Jordan on its way to fill the Sea of Galilee, and bring water to the fields of the Jordan Valley.
Not far from Magdala there are beaches where you can enter the shallow water, and we parked the car beside quite a few others drawn up by the side of the road. The baptist minister was already there with a goodly congregation, as several candidates were being baptized that morning. I was glad that Tom wasn’t the first to take the plunge, so to speak, as that way I had the chance to see what was expected of me. When it was Tom’s turn the 2 godfathers and myself waded into the water after him, and, with the water dragging on my skirt and the little fish nibbling my legs, we witnessed Tom making his baptismal promises and then being baptized by full immersion in this evocative place. The 2 godfathers then prayed extempore and I took a deep breath. Although I had guessed that this would happen I had not prepared anything. To my own total surprise, my mouth opened and I found myself saying:
Christ be with you, Christ within you,
Christ behind you, Christ before you,
Christ beside you, Christ to win you,
Christ to comfort and restore you…
I finished the verse, and there was a deep silence; it was held for a long while, then a boat passed, lapping us with little waves, and Tom came to hug me, all wet, and we came out of the water.
Everyone was milling about, deciding whether to go for a swim now, or whether to go straight to the restaurant where we were going to have lunch. I was just taking off my wet dress, having decided that, as I was already drenched, a short swim would be a good idea, when one of the young primary teachers came up to me and said, ‘That was a beautiful prayer; could you write it down for me if you can remember it?’ I said, ‘It’s a traditional prayer: St Patrick’s Breastplate. I’m sure I have a prayer card with it printed on. Would you like it?’ ‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘Do you mean that it’s famous?’ ‘Mmm,’I replied; ‘Something like that…’