It sounds so naïve now, but in the spring, many of us thought that (waves hands vaguely) all this would be over by midsummer. July sounded so far away! Surely the twice-cancelled baby shower could be repurposed as a baptism celebration! Yes, a baptism celebration. We all nodded thoughtfully, decisively. All theological doubts about infant baptism were laid aside. Our daughter would be baptized at the church in which I was confirmed back in Pennsylvania, the church my eighty-nine-year-old grandparents still attend. And then we would be able to be together, to celebrate properly, with a bona fide religious ritual to gather us on the banks of the River Susquehanna.
Well. July found us still staying home, still masking, and still anxious, only now with a baby I can see and hold to consider. Our pediatrician signed off on visits with the baby with some sensible precautions (masks, handwashing, gloves, no face contact), but that wasn’t much help for the now great-grandparents, who, understandably, don’t travel much at this stage of life. The date on which my family in Pennsylvania had agreed inched closer, and we had to decide: Would waiting a month or two make a difference? Could we gather safely enough? Was it even possible to know?
We packed up the baby and an entire car’s worth of stuff for a single night away. (Laugh if you must, but the baby bathtub may have bought us a decent night of sleep away from home.) One bag was entirely filled with disposable masks and three different sizes of gloves. We reserved a hotel room. I fed and changed the baby on a picnic table outside a rest stop and in the back seat of the car in the Wegmans parking lot to avoid taking her into any extra indoor spaces. We summoned absent family members (Dakota’s parents in Texas were quarantined out of New York and Pennsylvania due to the outbreaks there; one of my sisters had been exposed to COVID at work and was waiting out test results) and the little one’s godmothers on Zoom.
Surely it was madness. If we have a coronavirus budget, this felt like blowing a good eighty percent of it for the summer in one shot. Then again, on what else would we spend it, if not to wash our daughter in the waters of baptism and introduce her to her great-grandparents? I don’t even relish popping in to the neighborhood Walgreens or post office with the baby in tow, and outdoor dining doesn’t lend itself to an enjoyable time for a breastfed infant who needs to stay out of the July sun, or therefore to her parents.
So there we were, sixteen or so of us, seated in household groups in every other pew. The love in the room was nevertheless shot through with awkwardness, with fear, warm smiles hidden behind our masks. The amiable pastor stressed the necessary safety precautions for the space as much as the spiritual significance of the event. Still: my daughter wore the gown and bonnet that has been in the family for (now) four generations. A rose on the altar, a church tradition, represented her and her new life in baptism. We brought her to the tiny baptismal font, a simple silver bowl, and watched as the pastor poured the water over her tiny head and made the tiny Sign of the Cross there. Her baptismal candle was lit. And as we agreed to the promises of baptism, my daughter was formally welcomed into the family of God, following in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents, the family and friends in the space and beyond it.
I don’t know what kind of life we can promise her right now beyond the renunciation of the forces of evil, the belief in the triune God and the life of the world to come. The world is breaking; whether or not we can reshape it into something better, nobler, kinder, or if we continue to build on the backs of the poor and ignore the hard-fought lessons of the last few months, remains to be seen. The only promise God could make to Jesus, and to us, was that, in his suffering, he would not be alone.
In Mark’s Gospel, immediately after Jesus’s baptism, there is no cake, no pile of cheerful board books and preciously printed bibs to unwrap; he goes into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days and nights. The respite for us was longer and certainly more comfortable than that, but still, the world as it currently is was waiting for us when we left the church. I kept my mask on as much as was possible (between bites of cake) as a gentle reminder to everyone else to do the same, and we stayed outside as much as the weather permitted. I could feel my coronavirus budget cascading out of me like coins from a torn pocket.
But was it worth it? Eleven days later, as I finish writing this reflection, we’re coming to the end of the fourteen-day incubation period for COVID, and everyone here seems in robust good health. My grandparents got to meet and hold their great-granddaughter. The sigh of relief is almost ready to be released. But we are still in the wilderness of 2020: the pandemic, the hazy postpartum days, the nail-biting countdown to Election Day.
So I reluctantly let go of memories of past summers: hot nights on the Wildwood Boardwalk, frosty afternoons in dark movie theatres, early evenings sprawled on blankets in Prospect Park casually passing sushi and wine between friends. The coronavirus budget is spent and we are in the desert. But there is goodness behind us and beyond us and between us. Our daughter now has tangible reminders, in the form of her My First Bible and the candle we’ll light again next July 11, of being included in that circle of goodness. It is, in the end, the only promise we can make, the only promise that even the omnipotent God makes to Their beloved son. We go forward into the wilderness.