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Liturgy Corner August 29th 2021: Baptismal Font

After a long absence, the water in the Baptismal font has returned (yay!). This may seem like a relatively insignificant thing. In the grand scheme of things, it may be. But it is not insignificant. This event seems like a perfect time to refresh everybody on the Sacramental and Catechetical significance of the Baptismal font.

The Book of Blessings contains the prayers used for blessing a new Baptismal font, and its first paragraph contains an amazing density of theological richness. The baptistery, it says, is rightly considered one of the “most important parts of a church” because baptism is the “first sacrament of the New Law” in which people receive the “Spirit of adoption” and become “in name and in fact” God’s adopted children. Moreover, they join with Christ in a “death and resurrection like his” and “become part of his body.” To top it off, baptism fills a person with “the anointing of the Spirit,” making the baptized “God’s holy temple and members of the Church,” which it then characterizes as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1080). Many of these same ideas are taken up in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), which adds that baptism forms a “sacramental unity” linking all who have been baptized. All these things that happen by the Sacrament of Baptism, the joining with Christ in death and resurrection, the initiation into the Church and the people of God, the freedom from Sin, the unifying of all who receive it, all these things are also symbolized in distinct ways by the placement and structure of the font.

As is typical of the Church’s universal documents, very few specific details are given for baptisteries, although many historical examples demonstrate theologically derived inspiration.

In ancient Roman culture, tombs and other places of veneration were frequently designed with a centralized plan known as a tholos: a design using a circle, octagon, square, or Greek cross as its fundamental shape. Baptismal fonts were often made to imitate these shapes. To further the connection to a tomb, the Baptismal font was usually below floor level. The people would walk down into it and then back up the other side. This signified the dying and rising with Christ. Our baptismal font, while not below the floor, still holds onto this symbolism with the steps down into the font and the steps coming back out of it. And the shape of our font, a cross, further reminds us that we are truly united to the death of Christ on the Cross, and by this death and the subsequent resurrection, we also receive the salvation he earned through that sacrifice.

The Baptismal font in our church is at the entrance. Having it placed there is a common practice in churches these days and for good reason. Baptism is the first Sacrament of Initiation into the universal Church. By it, one is united to the life and death of Christ. It is by this uniting that a person is cleansed from original sin and made a ‘coheir’ to the kingdom with Christ. We become adopted sons and daughters of God the Father by being united to his only Begotten Son. We die to the life we had before, a life without hope of more than the bounds of this mortal life. We die to it and are reborn in the waters of baptism to embark on a journey to eternal life. In all these ways, in movement from death to life, in spiritual adoption, in joining a new family, in embarking on a journey, there is a stark sense of all-consuming transition in Baptism.

And so, having the font directly at the entrance reminds us that it is through these waters that we first enter into the universal Church, the family of God, the body of Christ. We raise our eyes from the baptismal font to look directly down the aisle to the altar where we are fully initiated and bonded to Christ in the Eucharist and receive the life-giving food needed to make this pilgrimage of mortal life in faith and devotion to God.

One of the most beautiful things about having the Baptismal font at the church is the reminder of the unity of the body of Christ, especially on a local level. Think of our old church downtown. One can easily imagine a time in the last century when almost everyone in the congregation could reflect on their rebirth in the baptismal waters of that single font. A whole congregation, a local representative of the body of Christ, all born again from that one font. Of course, the waters of every font in the world are, in every way that matters, the same water. Every person who has ever been baptized has been washed by the ‘same water’, for it is by the same words and ritual and the same Holy Spirit that they are cleansed from sin and made new creations in Christ. Like the people of Israel who were led by Moses from slavery in Egypt into the pilgrimage to a new promised homeland through the waters of the red sea, the Church as a people embarks on a pilgrimage towards the promised eternal life of heaven, leaving behind the slavery of sin by passing through the waters of Baptism.

 

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