I was overjoyed on Thursday when I got the honor and the privilege of baptizing my first baby. As chaplains, we rarely get to even see the healthy, living babies. It makes sense that we as chaplains don't see them often: parents are in awe and amazement over holding a newborn in their hands for the first time and certainly would want to be with just family; some families have a church home or at least a church they know where they will get their child baptized; plus, hospitals have such a quick turn around after birth that there’s not really time to stop and think, “Hmm, maybe a visit from the chaplain would be nice.” So when I got called to baptize a perfectly healthy 6 hour old baby, it brought such joy to my heart. There is nothing in the world quite like looking at one of God’s most recent creations and saying to him, “Be at peace. Christ is with you forever.”
I was still soaring on cloud 9 over that experience when I went into work today. I received a call from the nurse on the postpartum floor. This time, no baptism; this time, a blessing. The baby was born and died at 20 weeks gestation. I went up to the unit and prepared myself for the blessing. In our hospital (and perhaps the way many hospitals do it), we bless deceased babies with holy water that is placed in a shell and poured over the baby’s head. The shell is small and does not hold much water, but the babies are so tiny that it is enough water to cover the forehead. I did the water blessing for the child, as well as placing the mark of the cross on the baby’s forehead, symbolizing that Christ is with him forever. I grieved with the mother – there are just no answers to such a difficult loss.
The words of Matthew 19:14 kept coming to mind, when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” In seminary, one of my professors warned me of society’s 'romanticization' of this text. I think there’s some truth to that – I’ve certainly seen the images of Jesus carrying around a fluffy, smiling baby lamb as the blue-eyed children run to his feet. But here in this moment, holding this tiny baby, it didn’t feel romanticized at all. It gave me chills; it brought me joy; it brought me sadness; it brought me one step deeper into the mystery of God, the fragility of our lives, and the silence of deep and agonizing mourning.
The prayer for this baby sounded a little different than the prayer for the baptism two days prior. I used a prayer that I keep stuffed inside my tiny Bible for moments like this. The prayer reads: “May the grace of God surround you through the warmth and love of family and friends, and may you not feel alone. May God grant you assurance that your life has made a difference and that you are loved. May God bless your journey from this life to what lies beyond. May the Spirit of God go with you and grant you a peaceful passage. And may we meet you again in heaven. Amen.”
As I left the room, I heard the tiny, innocent cry of a healthy newborn next door as the baby’s mother tried to feed her. The mother on one side of the wall struggles to nurse her child; the mother on the other side of the wall struggles with knowing which funeral home to choose and whether to bury or cremate her child. The silence of death and the wails of life happening at the same time.
In these moments, I have to remember that Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” At the same time, yet in different ways, I imagined Jesus’ hand reaching out for both of these precious children. “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Thanks be to God.