When I was a kid, we grew up on the axiom, “A promise is a promise,” by which we understood to mean that if you made a promise, you were required to keep it.
Children develop their own rituals around promises and commitments and truth. And, they are very moral beings. If you made a promise to do something or be somewhere, your friend might ask you to “pinky swear.” That meant that you locked your pinky finger around your friend’s pinky finger and, as you said the magic incantation, “Pinky swear” you snapped your fingers apart.
You could really up the ante
if you were going to pinky swear with a Blood Sister or Brother. That was its
own special ritual where you took one of your mother’s straight pins that she
used to hem your hand-me-down skirt or the safety pin you used to tighten the
waistline on your hand-me-down pants and then pricked your finger and squeezed
it until a small bubble of blood appeared. Your friend would do the same thing
and then you would touch your fingers so the blood ‘mingled’ as you said the
magic incantation, “Blood Sister (or Brother). Forever.”
Henceforth and furthermore, when you ‘pinky swore’ a promise with a Blood Sister or Brother, well, your very life was on the line if you even THOUGHT about breaking the promise you made with a ‘pinky swear’.
No joke. Kids are dead serious about morals and rituals.
It should be noted, however that in my neighborhood and every neighborhood I ever knew, there could only be Blood Sister or Blood Brother. Girls would NEVER mix their blood with a boy’s blood or vise-versa, because, “Ewww . . .”
Every girl knew boys had cooties and every boy knew girls had cooties and, as a girl you never, EVER wanted boy cooties. And, no boy EVER wanted girl cooties. Until, adolescent hormones kicked in and then all bets were off the table and the Joker was absolutely wild. Unless, of course, in the great wonder and diversity of God and God’s creation, you were ‘born this way’ as Lady Gaga’s song goes, and others of the same gender were exactly the cooties you wanted.
And so it was with my best friend in the whole world, Maureen Toupin. Maureen lived in a house directly across the street from our house on Renaud Street in Fall River, MA. She was a single child. I was the oldest of four. Maureen’s mother was Irish and her father was French Canadian. My family were the newest wave of immigrants – this time from Portugal and the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands – specially imported as cheap labor to work in the garment mills and factories of that old, New England mill town.
As the latest “greenhorns” to the community, we were now the lowest on the social ladder, with all of the ridicule and prejudice ascribed to that social position. In the mill towns of New England, the pecking order – and I mean ‘pecking’ – was according to one’s arrival to work the mills and factories. So, first came the English, then the waves of Irish, then the French Canadians, and now the Portuguese – who were of darker complexion, didn’t speak the language and ate different kinds of food.
Even in Maureen’s family, her Irish mother regularly taunted her French Canadian father. Maureen hated it. She hated it more when she saw other kids taunting the Portuguese kids in the neighborhood. I had a sneaking suspicion that she specifically chose me to be her friend because I came from an immigrant family. You know, to be in her mother’s face about her prejudice.
I didn’t care. It didn’t matter why we were friends. It only mattered that we were friends.
Then came the day that we had been playing outdoors in the hot summer sun. We were both very thirsty, so Maureen invited me into her home for a glass of water. Her mother was in the kitchen and practically froze when she saw me. She demanded to know what I was doing there. Maureen reached in the cupboard for two glasses and explained that we were thirsty and just needed water.
Her mother snapped one of the glasses from her daughter’s hand and said to her, “You, get a drink from the faucet. And YOU,” she said, pointing to me, “go outside and drink from the water hose.”
I think I got dizzy from turning so quickly on my heels as I sped out the door. I didn’t even care that the screen door slammed behind me. Seconds later, Maureen came flying our of her house and said, “C’mon, I didn’t want to drink out of that glass, anyway. It’s much more fun to drink from the water hose.”
After we had satiated our thirst, Maureen’s face lit up with an idea. “C’mon,” she said, and I followed her into the storage shed where her father kept all his tools. She found the flashlight, a knife and some matches and then closed the door. Seeing the confusion on my face announced, “We are going to be Blood Sisters.”
I couldn’t have been more than seven years old, but I remember the moment Maureen and I became Blood Sisters as if it happened just yesterday. As a Rite of Passage it was a holy moment, the image of which remains in my memory files along with all the other holy moments in my life.
At the end of sharing our blood, we made a pinky swear to be Best Friends Forever – and that was long before the Internet created BFFs. We pinky swore to fight for and defend each other. To share what we had and teach each other what we knew. And never, ever let anyone or anything get in the way of our friendship. Not other girls or sisters or brothers or even mothers or fathers.
Alas, I lost track of Maureen long ago but she will live forever in the memories I store in my heart.
That’s the way it is with ‘pinky swears’. In scripture, it’s called a ‘covenant’. God made a covenant with Noah and all living creatures that never again would the earth be destroyed. God did not draw blood but instead, God drew a bow in the sky as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth and all the creatures of the earth.
That bow – which we call a rainbow – was a sign to us for all generations – as well as a reminder to God – of God’s covenant, God’s promise, God’s ‘pinky swear’.
St. Paul reminds us of the promise God made to Noah – when God saved eight people from the waters of the flood – and compares that to the covenant we make with God in the waters of our baptism, not as a removal of dirt fromthe body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrectionof Jesus Christ…
At the baptism of Jesus in
the River Jordan, we learn that as hewas coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spiritdescending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son,the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.
Right after Jesus was baptized, the Spirit drove him out to the wilderness – or, the desert – where Satan, the fallen angel, tempted him for forty days and forty nights.
I’ll tell you what: You wouldn’t dare go out into the desert for even one day, knowing that Satan was going to be waiting for you, if you hadn’t already gotten a pinky-swear from God. And, because you had that promise, that covenant with God, that you were God’s beloved child, you also knew, when they showed up, that God sent those angels there to tend to you.
When Jesus had recovered, the strength of that same pinky-swear allowed him to go all around Galilee, saying that the ‘time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ I mean, you just wouldn’t have the courage to do that unless you had just had a ‘pinky swear’ with God.
As we take these first few steps on our journey into Lent, I bid you to remember the promises you made with God at your baptism. The grace of that sacrament may not appear like a rainbow in the sky – it may not always be visible – but it is the promise of God to always be with you. At your baptism, a voice was heard throughout the heavens, ‘You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased’.
We are beloved of God. Scripture says that our names are written in the palm of God’s hand.
When we remember that moment, when we recall our baptism, when we know God calls us Beloved, we can gather up the strength and courage to venture forth into all the wildernesses and deserts that the path of life can take us to.
The promise is not that you will be free from fear or danger, hunger or thirst. The promise is not that you will be exempt from anxiety or depression or despair.
The promise is that, when these things happen in our lives, we will not be alone. God is with us – Emmanuel – the One who promises comfort and consolation, help and hope.
We are Blood Sisters and Brothers through Jesus who shed his blood on the cross.
Jesus will always send angels disguised as other human beings – other Blood Brothers and Sisters – to tend to us in our deepest hour of need.
That is the promise we make to God and each other in Baptism. See? That’s how it works. God depends on us. We depend on God.
Because a promise is a promise.