I was recently walking along Elysian Fields Avenue in New Orleans when the faint sound of a brass band echoed through the live oak trees. The music rose to a crescendo, and church doors swung open. Pallbearers carrying a somber casket slowly made their way out. People flooded behind, dancing, crying, and waving white handkerchiefs. I watched as the priest gave the final blessing and cast a splash of holy water that landed gently on the casket. It was a compelling reminder of Baptism.
As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). As the hearse departed up the rumbling street, the chorus of funeral goers began to sing: “O Lord, I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.”
The time between Baptism and death is typically a blurry, expansive jumble. It involves years of discovery, connection, celebration, and suffering. Yet, these two events in our lives mark what is most essential and most certain. They become our identity, our mission, and our surrender. As a dear professor shared, “At our conception we receive all that we are as a sheer gift. And at our death we return every offering. These bookends frame the meaning of everything between.
Life, if lived in faith, should synthesize these two into perfect harmony. Gift received, gift offered back.” Through the Baptism and death of my infant son, Jack Michael, I became a part of his offering. Jack’s Baptism was unlike those of my other children, who received the sacrament in magnificently adorned historical churches. We were just four. My husband and I, Jack, and Fr. Daniel in the hospital NICU, separated from the other patients by a simple curtain. Jack lay motionless in his isolette surrounded by tubes and beeping monitors. Fr. Daniel’s hand, massive in comparison with Jack’s body, tenderly applied the oil of salvation to his chest. “May you have strength in the power of Christ our Savior.” Sobbing, I gripped my husband’s hand and reminded myself to breathe. I pictured Mary standing at the foot of the Cross. How did she do it? I needed her strength.
Closing my eyes, I remembered the circumstances that led up to this moment. From the earliest weeks of my pregnancy, Jack and I were bonded. I recalled nights of uncertainty, pain, bleeding, and constant prayer. I thought of that time I woke up at the hospital knowing exactly what name to give him and the many letters I wrote to him. On January 24, I saw Jack for the first time. He was a tiny, two-pound miracle. Two weeks passed, and each day in the NICU, I held Jack, kissed him, and celebrated every ounce he gained. “Jack Michael, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” By the world’s standards, a little one whose life is marked by suffering does not make sense. Indeed, it’s a source of anger. Yet, as I faced Jack’s death, I felt peace. Jack’s identity and mission came into crystal-clear focus. He was grafted to the vine. He was hidden in Christ’s wounds.
Emerging anew after being plunged into the depths, Jack’s life bore witness to the entire purpose of the Christian life. From St. Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:8-10).
Jack’s quiet surrender came five days after he was baptized. I held him in my arms as he breathed his last. I went to Mass at a church called Mater Dolorosa. Behind the altar was a striking image of Mary, Mother of Sorrows, holding Jesus after He was taken down from the Cross. Mary’s eyes were bloodshot and puffy with dark circles underneath. Gazing on the image, I wanted to take everything back. The initial strength I felt melted away in the burden of recognized grief. I felt broken, the way she appeared. I was desperate for Jack to be safe in my arms again. Soon after that, Jesus answered my plea. As the priest held up the Eucharist, I felt him saying, “Take my body instead.”
The day of Jack’s funeral, a flood hit New Orleans. Local schools cancelled afternoon classes due to the threat of rising waters. The uptown streets were saturated. Song lyric played in my mind, “Even when the rain falls, / Even when the flood starts rising, / Even when the storm comes, / I am washed by the water.” I stood up to give Jack’s eulogy and looked out upon so many faces of friends and family members who had weathered the storm beside us. They had been our shelter for many months. Jack had opened up a precious vulnerability inside me. I recognized that opening myself to offers of support allowed me to identify more deeply in the Body of Christ.
I held my older son’s hand as I walked down the aisle to exit the church. We followed closely behind my husband, who carried Jack’s tiny casket with tears streaming down his face. Fr. Daniel met us to offer a final blessing of holy water as Jack’s body was driven away. In the distance, we could hear the faint sounds of a piano playing slowly and beautifully, “OLord, I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.” Through his Baptism, I knew that Jack had joined that number with Mary taking over as his mother.
Several months later, we found out that I was expecting another baby. The due date was no coincidence. Easter Sunday.
Art for this post on the Sacrament of Baptism: Cover and interior images used with permission; Featured image: Unsplash
To read more about Baptism, click HERE.