Adapted from a sermon given at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, Tennessee.
Candidates seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church are usually required to do Clinical Pastoral Education, which for most of us involves serving 400 hours as a student chaplain in a hospital setting. For many, it can be a terrifying, humbling, transformative experience. It certainly was for me. Entering into the joys and suffering of complete strangers and trying to provide a pastoral presence, while managing to avoid saying the wrong thing, is a tall order. After I had completed a few shifts, I was struck with how unpredictable and varying the work was; each time I went through the hospital doors and put on my ID badge, I had absolutely no idea what I was about to face. I might be asked to sit with someone who had requested prayer, to track down a patient’s family members via Google, to visit the morgue, or to accompany a doctor giving someone very bad news. A shift at the hospital could be quiet and fairly routine, or chaotic and difficult, or heart wrenchingly sad. More often than not, it was a combination of all three.
When the day came for me to do my very last shift, I drove to the hospital wondering if it would be a memorable evening or a forgettable one. It was an evening shift, and I was on call with one other chaplain to field any requests for a chaplain’s visit. I took the pager and went about my shift. Things were fairly routine until I got a call from the NICU. A baby had just been born who wouldn’t live long due to serious birth defects. The parents wanted the baby baptized. Could I come right away?
While my diaconal ordination was only a few weeks away, I wasn’t yet ordained, so I got in touch with the other chaplain, hoping he could perform the baptism. As it turned out, he wasn’t ordained either. After conferring with each other, I agreed at his prompting to do an emergency baptism, which laypeople are authorized to perform when a cleric is not available. My fellow chaplain and I went to the pastoral care office and retrieved the little plastic box that contained a short liturgy for the baptism of an infant, as well as a container of holy water and a shell. We went to the hospital room and stepped inside the curtain, where we found the parents with their daughter. The baby was propped up on a pillow near her mother’s head. I wondered to myself if the baby was even still alive. Nervously I poured some holy water into the shell and tipped it so that a few drops fell on the baby’s forehead as I said the words of baptism over her: Lizeth, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I traced the sign of the cross on her forehead and somehow managed to remember the line from our baptismal liturgy. Lizeth, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
It was all over quickly. The nurses needed to attend to the baby and her mother, and we left the room to fill out a baptismal certificate with the father. As with much chaplain ministry, we left not knowing what happened to the baby afterward, able only to entrust her to God in our prayers.
It was not what I had imagined my first baptism would be like; there were no flowing baptismal gowns or beaming relatives or beautiful music. But with its strange tangle of life and death in such close juxtaposition, this experience seared into me the meaning of baptism. For baptism is as much about death as it is about life. The New Testament is clear that baptism cannot be understood apart from death; in baptism, Paul says, we are buried with Christ in a death like his (Rom. 6:4). We are put to death along with our old lives as we go under the waters.
The Church found ways to bring this truth to life in the way it practiced baptisms. Some of the oldest baptismal fonts still extant were designed to look like a tomb. Baptisms were typically performed at a vigil held in darkness while the congregation awaited sunrise on Easter morning. Converts were told to not bring anything from their previous pagan life, such as jewelry or clothing, into the waters. Their old life was meeting its end there at the font.
If this were the only note to sound, this description of baptism would be macabre, grim, disturbing. But the New Testament is also clear that baptism never ends in death; instead, St. Paul and St. Peter always describe the new life God gives us in baptism. If through baptism we have been united with Christ in a death like his, Paul assures that “we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). We have passed through the waters of sin and death and been raised to new life on the other side.
The early Church brought this truth to life as well through its practice of baptism. As the darkness of the night faded away on Easter morning, the sun rose, casting its light on the faces of those who had just been plunged into the death of Christ — buried in the waters of the font — and who had been raised up to new life along with Christ, clothed in a new white garment, and marked with consecrated oil. They went from the font to the eucharistic table with these words on their lips: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
They trusted that they too had been raised — given, as Peter says in his first letter, “a new birth into a living hope” through Christ’s resurrection (1 Pet. 1:3). They believed and trusted that, as with Jesus, their bodies would be raised from the dead, never to die again. This new reality formed the very core of their faith in God and their understanding of themselves — that in baptism they had been united to Christ and given his risen, powerful, incorruptible life. That is the reality that began to impress itself upon me after I conducted that baptism in such unusual and difficult circumstances: that baptism into Christ gives us a living hope, especially in the midst of death.
I am glad that I went through my student chaplaincy before I had my children, because I suspect it would have been harder for me to experience baptizing a dying baby, had I known at the time what it is like to have and love your own children. My husband Dan and I have two children now: Hays, who is almost three, and Evelyn, who is seven months old. Since Evelyn was born, I have found that something unusual happens to me whenever I finish giving her a bath. Every time I lift her little body out of the tub after her bath, a memory comes over me of the first time she was placed into my arms, just moments after her birth, still wet and warm from the womb. For those of us who have had this experience of meeting our child for the first time at birth, it is a primal and powerful moment, the imprint of which never fades away. The mystery of a new life, that to this point has been growing and gestating in hidden places, is suddenly revealed and brought to the light. The little one whom we have hoped for and dreamed of, we finally see face to face, and the preciousness of that first encounter cannot be adequately described.
Baptism is a similar sort of encounter: God in Christ drawing us up out of the waters of sin and death that threaten to quench our life; God in Christ tenderly embracing us as he calls us by name; God in Christ infusing us with new life that is infinitely stronger than death, and that he promises will be everlasting.