“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:19-20)
May 31, 2015
The Most Holy Trinity
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
Responding to the insistent vibrations of my hospital pager that winter morning, I discovered the call from the pediatric unit to be an urgent request for baptism. “Please come as soon as possible,” the staff person initiating the call said. “We have a very sick little girl here who may not live long.” My stomach jumping a bit as I boarded an elevator for the 7th floor, I anticipated a wrenching scene.
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Arriving on the unit, the flurry of doctors and nurses overflowing a room indicated immediately where I was wanted. At the center of the swarm I saw a small girl bedded amidst a tangle of tubes. As the charge nurse informed me, “This is 8 year-old Elena. She’s had a long history of cancer and isn’t responding to treatment anymore. The doctors just spoke with Lucinda, her mother, telling her that there is nothing more they can do. That’s when Mom asked me to call you for baptism. She’s outside in the waiting room right now making some phone calls.” Thanking the nurse for the information, I went to find Lucinda.
Entering the waiting room, a young woman on the phone its only occupant, I could hear her ending the call at my approach, “Mom, I’ll call you back later. The priest is here.” Introducing myself, I sat down beside her, then, “Lucinda, they told me inside what’s going on with Elena. I’m so sorry.” Surprisingly controlled, Lucinda told me of their long battle with the cancer, Elena responding so well at first to the treatments, but then this. “I think now’s the time to baptize her, Father,” she continued. “I know we shouldn’t have waited this long, but there was just so much going on.” Taking her hands in mine, I assured her we’d take care of things right away.
Together we returned to her daughter’s bedside, the medical swarm parting to allow us access. Dark-haired Elena, unconscious, hovered between heaven and earth beneath a quilt of tiny pink and blue angels. I asked Lucinda, “Is there anyone else here with you that you’d like to be present for the baptism?” Shaking her head, she spoke softly, “No, I’m here by myself.” Immediately, two of the nurses who’d been caring for Elena came nearer, wrapping their arms around Lucinda in assurance that she was most certainly not alone.
While the bulk of the swarming staff had left the room, allowing us quiet space for the ritual, a number remained to participate. A nurse brought to bedside a small decorated box, handing it to me with the explanation, “Here’s what we use for baptism.” I took from the box a seashell and a small vial of water. Inviting all into prayer, we blessed ourselves with the Sign of the Cross prior to reciting together the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary.” Then, opening the small white plastic vial and pouring some of the water into the seashell, I called upon the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as thrice I gently drizzled the water onto Elena’s forehead. The oddest thing, though: tiny bubbles formed in the pouring and began to rise above the bed, morning sunlight catching them, a sparkling glitter above the head of little Elena! Initially, no one else present seemed to catch what I was seeing. Grief was too heavy at that moment for the serendipity of bubbles.
When next I asked Lucinda and the several nurses present to trace the Sign of the Cross on Elena’s forehead, I noticed quizzical expressions on their faces as they, too, then saw the tiny sparkling spheres. Final confirmation of their presence came when, concluding the rite, I blessed Lucinda, tracing the Sign of the Cross on her forehead with the few drops of water that remained in the seashell. More bubbles! Everyone saw them! Led by Lucinda, then taken up by the rest, gasps became smiles, then laughter. “I think it’s a sign,” joyfully proclaimed Lucinda. “A good one.”
Stepping outside the room, I examined the vial of water more carefully. A small white plastic container with a white ribbon wrapped around it, the lid was a sort of dipstick, the water a bit slippery, bubbles within the vial. Then recognition struck! I’d seen these vials at weddings. These were wedding bubbles! And I’d just baptized a dying child with them!
Bubbles meant to celebrate new married life had become the blessing conferred on little Elena. Bubbles meant to rise heavenward as hopes and prayers for a newly married couple now rose up from the pale forehead of a child who seemed herself to be floating toward heaven. But irony became blessing when Lucinda began to laugh, when hope was renewed.
In the gospel passage we hear today on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:19-20) Which is exactly what we’d done for Elena that winter morning; a little girl, so close to death, was signed and sealed in the promise eternal life. Gathering to pray at the seeming juncture of earthly death giving way to heavenly life, the surprise of bubbles communicated the tenderness of Jesus and his abiding promise: “I am with you.”
Elena didn’t die that day. Didn’t die that whole week. In fact, winter turned to spring, and she was still alive. The cancer yet had a grip on her, but what those bubbles signified had the stronger grasp. Lucinda could smile and even laugh in remembrance of them.