A Living Offering

In the February issue of First Things, Matthew Milliner, who teaches art history at Wheaton College, has a striking reflection on the birth and baptism of his daughter.

He and his wife had lost a young child at birth some years before. They had named him "Clement."  For thirteen years they prayed for another child, before being graced with the birth of Mary (whom they lovingly call "Polly").

Milliner meditates on the baptismal ceremony:

“By a virginal birth Mother Church bears the children she conceives by God’s breathing,” reads the inscription at the famous St. John Lateran baptistery in Rome. Architectural historians have even suggested that early Christian fonts were deliberately shaped like wombs.

But they also resembled coffins. “That saving water was at once your grave and your mother,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The oldest surviving baptismal font at Dura Europos is covered by the same arcosolium found in burial places; and it is not a coincidence that the first great freestanding baptisteries resembled mausolea, the architecture of the dead. My daughter had been wrenched from the cords that threatened to smother her new life, only here to undergo a different, mysterious death.

To this I was oblivious. As the bishop handed Polly back to me, I instinctually did what I always did. I took back the daughter that God had given me after so much praying and hoping, and pressed her head up to my nose—only to receive an unwelcome shock. She had been chrismated as well, and the aggressive aroma of holy oil, not precious baby head, blasted into my nostrils like smelling salts.

“You have dedicated her to God, and He has taken the offering.” So wrote John Henry Newman to his friend Edward Pusey upon the death of Pusey’s infant daughter. I knew the same counsel applied to our dead child Clement, but I hadn’t considered that it could apply to our living one as well.

I should have thought twice before going through with the baptism. She is no longer mine.

The full article (subscribers only) is available here.

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Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.

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