Baptismal candidates come in all shapes and sizes.
Sleeping babies come to the font in their parents’ arms. The warm water gently rouses some. They smile and gaze up at the priest. Others wail. The music or the movement or a stranger’s arms have jarred them awake.
Older children sometimes need a boost from a parent or use a step stool provided by the altar guild to lift their head above the font. They lean out over the water as if they’re waiting for a shampoo.
Adults often approach the sacrament with self-awareness. They can be self-conscious, but that’s not what I mean by self-awareness. There is a mindfulness among adult candidates. They bring to the waters of baptism a life already shaped by the bumps and scrapes and disappointments of, well, living.
Unlike babies or even older children, grownups may realize that they are giving their old lives away. The lives that they have made and would have made for themselves. In baptism we all lay down our self-constructed existence in exchange for a life created by, for, and in Jesus.
But here’s the key. Baptism is not principally about what we do. God initiates an eternal relationship with us in baptism. Baptism’s waters communicate to us sensually what God is doing spiritually and invisibly.
God saturates us with God’s own presence.
We may not look any different in the moment, but the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence initiates an eternal and infinite transformation of our very being. God infuses us with holiness. Like fruit infused with spirits, our outward appearance remains recognizable. But like that fruit, our inner texture and our essence are being gradually transformed.
And I do mean “gradually.”
Kathleen Norris drove this home for me in a brief story she relates in her book Amazing Grace. A Benedictine nun had been sitting by her elderly mother’s deathbed. Trying to comfort the dying woman, the nun said that, when she gets to heaven, everyone she loves will be there.
Her mother corrected her daughter with these words. “No, in heaven I will love everyone who’s there.” (Norris, Kathleen, Amazing Grace, p. 367. Kindle Edition.)
The nun’s mother understood that baptism had set her on an eternal journey whose destination is not a “where” but a “who.” Baptism does not open the gates of heaven for us. Instead, baptism slowly infuses us with heaven. A heaven-infused person is surrounded by children of God, no matter who shows up.
When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we profess our belief in the communion of saints. In other words, we are joined at the hip with all of God’s children whether they walk this planet with us now or have already entered the next life.
If I keep my vision narrow, this is great news to me. When I think about heaven, I often bring my mother, my brother, and my sister to mind.
They have entered Jesus’s nearer presence ahead of me. And while I am in no rush to join them on that far shore, I take comfort in knowing that we are forever and are even now one in Christ. I pray that they go from grace to grace in God’s infinite, perfect beauty. And I sincerely look forward to our reunion.
And then, I think of my deceased father. I grudgingly pray, “And my father, too.”
It’s not at all that I want him to occupy the eternal hot seat. It’s just that I can muster no enthusiasm about passing him the mashed potatoes at the heavenly banquet feast for all of eternity. Forgiving his betrayal, mendacity, and abuse is a work in progress.
This is embarrassing to admit. It is even more embarrassing to admit that there are any number of people that I see or read about in the news that I don’t even want to share a zip code with, much less a booth in God’s celestial diner.
And while I’m revealing how far from perfectly heaven-infused I am, I may as well admit that I’m not above snarky thoughts about people on the basis of nothing more than what they’re wearing, what they’re driving, or the opinions I overhear them unselfconsciously sharing in public settings.
One day, by grace, I will love everybody. For now at least, I also experience the truth of Jean-Paul Sartre’s insight. Hell is other people. At least, that’s the truth when I fail to love the people that God has put in front of me.
Baptismal candidates come in all shapes and sizes. Or more precisely, we are all in the same shape. Helpless and needy. And God reaches out to us and embraces us in our messy frailty and unflattering imperfection. I caught a glimpse of this in my first baptism.
The congregation consisted of two nurses, a mother, and a baby. We had gathered around a little boy’s open warmer in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
His head was pitiably misshapen and his arms and hands were splayed outward from his side. The mother sat expressionless by his crib, drained by a mixture of sorrow and guilt.
One of the nurses had explained to me that she was an addict and probably a prostitute. Her drug use had contributed to the child’s condition. During her pregnancy, she had thought of the baby in her womb as the start of a new life. Now she found herself in a more desolate place than she had ever inhabited before.
The medical staff had called me in preparation for removing the child from life support. They did not want him to die unbaptized. The boy’s mother had consented to the baptism, but the call had clearly originated with the nurses.
Everybody cried as we baptized the little guy, removed him from life support, and waited for him to draw his last breath. The nurses thanked me, lingered respectfully for a while, and then left the mother to have private time with her son.
During the baptismal rite, the mother had seemed listless and distant. But after I had baptized her son, she took her little boy in her arms, spoke softly to him, and gently stroked his hair. He died peacefully in his mother’s embrace.
The nurses had called me because they wanted the little boy to go to heaven. They feared that an unbaptized baby would be barred from paradise. Nothing could be further from the truth.
God’s grace is neither petty nor narrow. And neither is God’s love held in reserve until we perform the right rituals and achieve the required moral profile.
On the contrary, what I glimpsed that day—and what I hope the others experienced as well—is that heaven is striving to insinuate itself into everything, into every place, into every relationship, into every life. Even hell cannot keep heaven out forever.
In baptism—as in every sacrament—we glimpse in the sensuous fabric of creation what God is always and already up to in the invisible depths of our existence. God is remaking us. God’s love is saving us. Gradually.