Death Dreadful and Dear

Saturday, 7 p.m. Though neither of us yet knows, ineluctable forces are already moving young Anthony and me toward our terrifying rendezvous. I have baptisms after the Spanish language Mass. Gregorio has lit the large Paschal Candle, which stands on its impressive, sculpted stand near the font. Four or five families, not all that many for us, are attending Mass in preparation for the sacrament.

8:15. Mass has cleared, and Gregorio, who serves as Master of Ceremonies, begins instructing the families on the responsibility of baptizing their children. He does this with some relish, because the previous pastor did it. With my limited Spanish skills, I neglect this. I’m ready to begin, but don’t interrupt. Instead I admire the outfits of the children. A newborn baby sports what may be the loveliest baptismal dress I’ve seen. It’s cream colored, with lots of lace. She wears a matching bonnet. Two boys, who are almost school age, wear little white tuxedoes, with embossed images of Our Lady of Guadalupe on their backs. Mexican and Guatemalan really know how to dress for sacraments. Anthony, a toddler, is wrapped in a white blanket, wearing white underwear beneath it, which I fail to notice. Our last chance to avert calamity passes. 

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8:30. I am working my way through the blessing of the waters, which seems particularly long in Spanish, though it’s the same text. We are ready for the baptisms. Our Mexican brothers and sisters have a lovely tradition here as well. Each family purchases a little kit, containing an ornate baptismal candle, a white rosary, white prayer book and decorated conch shell, which is used for the baptism. All of this will be blessed afterwards. We bless everything.

Suddenly, Anthony’s mother removes his blanket. He’s in white underwear, wearing a little silken wife-beater. Gregorio says to me, in Spanish, “He’s first; you’re immersing him.” 

I’ve never immersed anyone. I don’t even know if you can immerse a toddler, though I faintly remember seeing some video, about babies learning to swim. I can’t possibly immerse Anthony. What does that even mean? Do I put him in the water, which is almost as deep as he is high, stand him up and pour water on him? Or do they mean that I literally put his head under the water? I don’t know what these people want or expect. If only someone had said something before we began.

I’m at that terribly awkward point where I understand much more Spanish than I can produce. “No puedo.” It’s not much by way of explaining myself, but at least I’ve managed to demure. 

Si, Padre.”

I repeat, rather pathetically I think. “O no! No puedo.”

Gregorio explains that everything is ready, that the font has been heated for this, as though that were my concern rather than the inadvertent death of a child. There is one more desperate, “No, no puedo,” followed by a firm, “Si, Padre.”

I grab poor Anthony by his arm pits. He seems okay with this. No one has briefed him either on what to expect. I stick all of him, feet first, under the water, praying desperately that he will close his mouth. Up he comes, for the first time. Not a sound. Has he drowned that quickly? Down he goes again, in the name of the Son. This time he comes up howling. I have to hand it to the little fellow. He is a survivor. I feel like howling myself, in terror, but we still have the Holy Spirit to go.

I hand the dripping Anthony back, into his mother’s blanket. The whole thing has happened so quickly, I don’t know if they are pleased or appalled. They step away, and I baptize the second child, this one with a conch shell, but by the wrong name. The baby’s father, very tolerantly I think, points out that they want their son to be named Pedro, not Pablo. What to do? I have a degree in liturgy, but degrees don’t move with dispatch. I offer a rapid “perdoname” and re-baptize him Pedro.

Baptism is our sacramental acceptance of death. It’s a lot of other things, like entrance into the church and our adoption as children of God, but all of that is wrapped around the fundamental fact that we are destined to die and that there are only two ways to face death: as dread or dear. Life is all about choosing between the two.

We aren’t absolutely sure why Jesus sought baptism by John. Certainly not in repentance for sin, however much he identified with John’s apocalyptic call. We know that the baptism of Jesus stands at the beginning of his public ministry, the mission, which he accepted from his Father:

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit (Is 42:1).
 

His vocation leads to his death. In going down into the waters, Jesus opens himself to death as something dear.

This is the one who came through water and blood,
Jesus Christ, not by water alone,
but by water and blood (1 Jn 5: 6).
 

The baptism of Jesus did not remove the dread of death, then or later, but, like his death on the cross, it expresses a willingness “to love his own unto the end,” into the very depths of death itself (Jn 13:1). Jesus enters the waters, “he who ‘for a little while’ was made ‘lower than the angels,’ that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9). 

Like that of Jesus, our baptisms are distant in time from our deaths, but, like his, the sacrament expresses a willingness to embrace death as something dear. Dear because it closes a life that must have a terminus and that should have a point. Dear because in surrendering to death we embrace the mystery from which we come. Dear because in death we open ourselves to depths deeper than we can sound.

Anthony may be old enough to remember—forever I fear—the terror of his baptism. For most of us, the moment brings no such fright. That comes later in life, when waves we cannot stay wash over us. Then we face the terror of the unknown, of that which calls all of our projects and presumptions into question. That’s why other sacraments exist, as resounding echoes of baptism, so that we might consciously imitate Christ, so that, in the light of resurrection, we might embrace even dreadful death as something dear.

Isaiah 55: 1-11    1 John 5: 1-9     Mark 1: 7-11

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Mary Luti
3 years 4 months ago
This is a splendid reflection, beautifully written and evocative. Thank you. May I beg you, however, to avoid the term "wife-beater"? I know it is the common term for that sort of t-shirt, but it is terrifying to see it used so casually in an otherwise very human and sensitive essay. I can hardly type the words without trembling for all the women I know who have suffered abuse.
Terrance Klein
3 years 4 months ago

Good point.  And why didn't I think to write, "tank top?"

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