Pulling my son up from under the water, his eyes closed and dead, his fingers pinching his nose, there is a moment when I recognize death for what it is. I see it, right there in front of me. But this is a momentary death, and my recognition of it is fleeting. His eyes open, and his flat line mouth turns into sputters, and life, pure life, lights up into a smile.
The water that runs off the head of my son, freshly baptized, is like no water I’ve ever seen. I want to bottle it and take it home. Set it reverently in the corner of my desk, in front of the picture of him when he was crawling around naked after a bath, two years old. I want to put it in front of the picture of my father and I (the three of us share a first name) at my graduation so that I can see that event, that relationship, new, through the magnifying glass of my son’s baptismal water.
I wonder what I would see in that water, if I put it on a small glass slide and viewed it through a microscope. What single cell organisms participated in his rebirth? What tiny amoeba lost its relatives in a drop of water he may have swallowed? The moment was so holy that I find it hard to believe the water wouldn’t be full of signs, full of molecules that point to new life.
* * * * *
Unless a seed dies, it remains a single seed.
* * * * *
And then, my daughter crawled lightly into the tank, so buoyant it felt like I had to hold her down just to keep her from floating into the air. So small. So young. She shook with excitement and nervousness. I wondered what she was thinking at that moment. I wondered what she expected this submersion to accomplish.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Then she was under and coming back up, face first, water running.
I wonder what death she will experience in this life, what disappointments, what discouragements. Sickness and sadness – it waits for all of us, often when we least expect it. I hope this second birth will help her through these things, later, when this baptism is just a distant memory, when all that remains are shadows and dreams of the day her father and grandfather baptized her in a tank of extraordinary water in a small church in Gap, Pennsylvania.
* * * * *
I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
* * * * *
Baptism by fire. Now there’s an image.
I can’t confess to understanding this God, the one who dies, the one who leads us into death, the one who baptizes, not with water but with fire. For while I can collect the water that runs off my children’s heads and stare into it, study it, analyze the minute life that swims in it, I cannot do that with fire. I cannot put fire under a microscope. I cannot soak it’s puddles up with a towel. I cannot stand in it with my children.
None of us even have the will to enter into fire. That sort of baptism – you have to wait for it to fall down.