Baptism. It seems like just a moment ago we were driving to church on the first Sunday after Epiphany to celebrate the Baptism of our Lord and to baptize our baby daughter. Yet here we are, driving to church once again for the Baptism of our Lord, and this time, to baptize our son.
It’s been two years. Two years in that Mobius strip of time with small children that feels like forever and only a day. I turn around in the cramped quarters of our little car to peek at the children in the backseat — my daughter in tights, shoes, and a slip, my son in the outfit he slept in last night. I check again in the bag to make sure we have everything we need. I’ve learned not to dress my children until the absolute last second.
When we arrive at church, my husband carries our daughter while I carry our son. Once we’re inside we switch; anyone can dress the baby in his white, embroidered baptism outfit, but only I can coax the wisps of my daughter’s strawberry-blonde hair into little pigtails.
“Do you remember when you were baptized?” I ask her, twining her hair around my finger.
“Yes,” she says. I smile. She was only eight weeks old. My son, at three months, seems practically ancient compared to her tinyness at baptism. She can’t possibly remember.
Then again, I’ve also learned not to doubt my daughter.
The usual pre-service quiet is a flurry of dressing children, roping off pews, welcoming guests, fielding questions about the party to follow. I feel like Kali, my six arms stretching out in all directions: two for each child and two to hold up the rest of the world. It’s perhaps not the most appropriate sentiment, moments before a Christian baptism, but I feel it nevertheless.
As the service starts, I settle into the familiar rhythm of ancient words. My heart rate slows, the omnipresent mental checklists momentarily stilled. I think of a prayer attributed to Thomas à Kempis, “that we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.” It’s my prayer every Sunday, that I might lose myself to the distractions of the temporal world around me, and so find myself, my true self, eternal.
Until my son decides he needs to eat. I slip out as the sermon starts and carry him downstairs, where I can nurse him in private and watch the service on closed-circuit television. He is adorably soft in his cuddly white velvet, all big hungry eyes and gummy grins, and I cradle him to my chest and stroke his head while he nurses, and I listen to the sermon, enjoying this moment of spirituality and physicality in rare harmony.
I’m gazing at my son when I hear the priest stop mid-sentence. I glance up at the screen, and see a small commotion in the pews. The congregation shifts in and out of focus as I realize that something terrible is happening, and hear the priest’s voice, raised but not alarmed: “Is there a doctor?”
And then all is flurry. The priest is praying, people are parting, other people are rushing to the aid of what I can soon see is an elderly man who is lifted up and carried from the church. And I’m trembling. It feels surreal, as if watching it on a television screen means it’s not really happening right above my head. I find myself praying, too — not the eloquent prayers of the priest, but “God please, God please, no.” Tears drip down to fall, cushioned, onto my son’s velvet outfit.
After a minute that seems an eternity, pounding footsteps echo down the stairs into the church basement and my husband appears at my side.
“They’re cutting the sermon short,” he tells me. “They’re going straight to the baptism.”
“No,” I say, my son still at my breast. “I can’t do that.” I look at my husband, pleading. “I can’t baptize him while someone might be. . . .” My voice trails off.
Baptism, the celebration of new life in Christ, is a celebration of hope in the face of death. As we are buried in Christ, so also shall we rise with him. Some faith traditions enact this poignantly, fully immersing the baptized in water; but at my church a decorous sprinkling of water from a shell-shaped cup is the only “death” we see.
And I like it that way. Not only would I never allow my infant child to be fully submerged under water — it’s hard enough for me to relinquish my child to be sprinkled — I like that the image of death isn’t present at baptism. I don’t want to think about death in the same space that I think about my child.
But now, I can’t look past it. I clutch my son to my chest as my husband guides me upstairs, where I see the elderly man lying on the floor in the narthex, his chest bare. A thousand hands, it seems, are pushing against his skin. The chords of the baptism hymn drift out from the sanctuary. I’m shaking.
My mother is waiting for me, putting an arm around my husband’s arm that is already around my shoulders. “I can’t do this,” I say, and hear the note of hysteria in my voice. “I can’t baptize my baby while someone is dying.”
“You can do it,” they say as one, guiding me into the church while I hold my son even more tightly. I try not to look at the man on the floor, but the image is burned into my retinas.
The service of baptism begins. The priest asks for the child to be named, if we desire for him to be baptized, if we promise to bring him up in the Christian faith and life.
I can’t answer. It is too real, too urgent: my child being baptized, being brought into the family of Christ, while another one of God’s children lies on the floor only feet away from me, separated only by a thin wall, by the short span of a human lifetime. I hold my son and cry.
And then all around me, I hear voices. Naming my son. Stating the desire to baptize him, promising to raise him in the Christian faith and life. My husband’s voice, and that of my son’s godfather, and my own godmother who is standing in for his. Standing there for me, with me, promising to do that which my heart is crying even though I cannot find my voice.
The priest turns to the congregation. “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”
And the walls resound: “We will.” I feel the force of those words, spoken together en masse, and I’m trembling all over again. I’ve heard those words, their weight and volume, at my own baptism, my wedding, my daughter’s baptism, countless ceremonies in the course of my Christian life. And it’s true: they will, with God’s help. They will support me. They will stand for me when I cannot, speak for me when I cannot, hold me as surely as I now hold my son.
The priest reaches for my son, and I hold back. I don’t want to give him up. I think of the man lying in the narthex. As we die with Christ, so also shall we rise. Someday my son will die, but so, too, will he rise. This is my faith. I let him go.
My son is baptized, and as the baptism hymn resumes, we process to the front of the church. Then we receive word: the man on the floor of the narthex is going to be okay. My knees nearly buckle with relief, and I’m overcome with gratitude for the life of this man who has somehow, symbolically, become inextricably linked with my son. He’s going to be all right. Now, and forever — for he was buried with Christ, so also shall he rise.
We turn and face the congregation, and I close my eyes as their words wash over me: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”
And I hold my son as tightly as I dare, my arms full of living, breathing baby boy and soft white velvet. He is sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism. He is marked as Christ’s own forever.