I remember the sight of Sam’s baptism. Holding our baby – our own baby! after years of hoping! – dressed in the same white gown that four generations of our family’s babies had worn, watching him squeal as we undressed him to be plunged into the warm waiting font.
I remember the smell of Thomas’ baptism. Sweet balsam chrism that lingered on his head for days afterward, staining his father’s grey suit where he held him proudly as we snapped a hundred photos.
I remember the feel of Joseph’s baptism. Gathering a wriggling wet baby in my arms, wrapping him in white towels, giving him back to the arms of the priest who carried him out to see the whole clapping congregation.
But this baptism? I have no memory. I was not witness. I was still lying in the recovery room, groggy from surgery and foggy from anesthesia. I did not see our daughters’ only sacrament.
But he did.
I can only imagine how it looked. The bright lights of the resuscitation room, giant machines looming, swarming doctors and nurses working to stabilize two sick babies. Into this scene of science and sterility and starkness, he comes with faith and the tiniest drops of water. To do a bold and daring thing – to bless their being and claim them for Christ.
He is their father. This is what he can do.
I can only imagine how it felt. To touch their thin, shiny skin with his wet fingers. To dip three times into water from the nurse’s cup. To sense the warmth of their bodies beneath his hand.
I can only imagine how it sounded. To hear him speak ancient, holy words amidst the medical jargon of doctors hustling to save our babies. To listen to the promise of transformation: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. To proclaim life when death’s threat still hangs heavy above their incubators.
Only now do I realize that I was.
Because this is the truth about sacraments. They are acts of faith, yes, but also acts of courage in community. They remind us that we are never alone.
Not only because a sacrament is spoken in the name of the Church. Not only because a sacrament is celebrated in the presence of the One who promised to be there wherever two or three were gathered.
But also because in the fullness of time and the communion of saints, we are all there together. We are with him in that stark bright hospital room. We are reaching out our hands and pouring the water and speaking the words and loving these babies as our own. Because they are.
These are the bravest of baptisms. Sacraments celebrated in the face of death, in the moments when life is utterly uncertain.
We step in – all of us, church together – with faith that is at once steady and shaking, and we say this is holy. We take ordinary elements and believe they become extraordinary. We speak eternal life even in the instant that death hurtles toward us.
And the church changes in that instant of sacrament – as it is always changing, all the living and dying, leaving and joining, hurting and hoping and healing of our churning world. We become the Body of Christ that is pulsing and moving and growing. We are sacrament together, and sacrament changes who we are.
I can forget that our most important acts do not depend on the details or the setting or the characters. All the things that I, as a mother and a writer, yearn to control.
Samuel and Thomas and Joseph and Margaret and Abigail – they became Christians not because of any worthiness I could offer them, any dazzling white garment or picture perfect photo or clapping smiling family or delicious party luncheon. Any complexity we create pales in power to the act itself.
Water and words are all that are needed to change life as we know it.
For this time, the details of the story, its weight on the heart and hands, the smell and feel of its memory – they remain his alone. He will carry the story; he will tell and retell it; he will guard its secrets. But his act of love and bravery changed me, too.
Because after I had done all a mother could do – carry life within me, nurture them with good food and quiet rest, place them in the care of wise and trusted doctors, let myself be broken open that they might come into the world – he did all that a father could do. He took them into his hands and gave them new life, second birth, death with Christ.
It was the bravest thing he has ever done. And none of us will ever be the same.