A couple of weeks ago, I experienced a first: I think it was the only time in my life that I had attended both a memorial service and a baptismal service in the same day. I was struck in a new way by the meaning of each ritual, by the contrasts and the parallels.
In the morning, my wife and I attended a memorial for a friend who was a member of our church. I confess that I didn’t know her well. But she was as spunky and life-affirming a person that you would ever want to meet, someone who had struggled with heartache and come out on top.
I had visited her in the hospital during her battle with cancer. Lying in a hospital bed is a humbling and undignified position; I’ve known people who refused visitors because they didn’t want to be seen in that state. But she didn’t care a whit — embracing visitors with gusto, telling stories, even directing traffic. After a while, I took her hands and prayed with her, but in some measure, I felt that she should be the one praying for me.
The memorial was somber. The minister gave some verbal snapshots of her life. Family and friends both laughed and cried as they watched a video of family photos that showed her loving and lively character. The minister reminded us all of the hope of heaven, and prayed. People slowly dispersed to refreshments and subdued conversations.
The worship service that evening began with baptism. A small parade of people, young and, well, less young, wearing identical T-shirts, came one by one into the baptistery. Under the water they went, then up again, some wiping away the water from their eyes, some, tears.
I love watching people’s faces as they pop back up. Some still look a bit stunned; after all, getting dunked in that way is meant to symbolize death. But after death, life. Some emerge with jubilant, infectious, fist-pumping joy, spraying water everywhere.
I had to wonder: could that same joy be present at a memorial service too?
In baptism, we are symbolically buried with Christ, united in his death, in the hope that we will also be united with him in resurrection (Rom 6:3-5). But the “newness of life” of which Paul speaks is not just a future resurrection after physical death, but a renewed life now. We are freed from the domineering clutch of sin, in order that we might give ourselves fully to Christ. To some, that doesn’t sound like much fun — but that’s only if we don’t know the joy of living gratefully in the presence of a gracious and loving God.
When a loved one dies, we suffer the pain of loss. That’s as it should be: the latter is the flip side of the former.
But at a memorial service, if I could, I would show a picture of the dearly departed emerging radiant from the waters of baptism: this is the person we remember today, the person who passed from death to life then, the person who passes from death to life now. Back then, they did so with joy, and entered a life of newness. Today, they bid us to enter their joy.
In that way, the waters of baptism might wash away — no, sanctify — our tears, too.