Page 7

Adoremus Bulletin, January 2018

The Sacred Depth of the Baptismal Font: The Place of Re-Creation


By Denis McNamara


“A church is a ‘sacramental building’.” Everything in a church can be seen in this light, yet each part of the church building, like each member of a body, has a specific purpose and makes a particular contribution to the whole. Because of the vital role baptism plays in the living faith, Church documents are unanimous in heralding the baptistery as one of the primary parts of a church. Every architectural and artistic decision about the baptistery, then, grows from the essential nature of baptism and the true magnificence of its meaning. A Plunge into Baptism’s Depths 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, 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. The Catechism contributes several other ideas to this treasury of theological concepts. The word baptism itself comes from the Greek word baptizein, it notes, which means “to plunge” or “immerse.” But in mystagogical fashion, it quickly adds that this plunge is not merely a human, external event alone, but symbolizes a person’s burial into Christ’s death by going down into the water, and a person’s emergence as a “new creature” through Christ’s resurrection. This plunging also takes its meaning from naturally derived realities that water and washing signify. But in mystagogical fashion, baptism brings about not a literal purifying with water only but also “the washing of regeneration


he Catechism of the Catholic Church makes a broad but theologically-rich statement about church buildings. In paragraph 1180, the Catechism states, “visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ.” In other words, the church building is more than the steel and stones of its construction. It allows people to perceive with their senses that God has fulfilled the promise to be present with his people. For this reason, a church is a “sacramental building,”1 one which makes present the otherwise invisible realities of the Catholic faith and leads the viewer to their hidden spiritual meaning. The Church calls this process mystagogy, from the Greek words agein, meaning “to lead,” and mystes, meaning the “mysteries” or hidden spiritual realities. and renewal by the Holy Spirit” which forgives all sins, original and actual (CCC, 1263). Moreover, this regeneration is called a “birth of water and the Holy Spirit,” and so the act of baptism has long been associated with coming from the natural womb of a human mother to the supernatural womb of Mother Church. Lastly, the Catechism quotes St. Justin Martyr, who calls baptism a bath of “enlightenment” which

“Every architectural and artistic decision about the baptistery grows from the essential nature of baptism and the true magnificence of its meaning.” makes every baptized Christian a child of light, indeed, “Light himself ” (1214-1216). Living, Liberating Waters The scriptures reveal the meaning of water in several ways. In the beginning, God created the waters and breathed across them, making them a wellspring of holiness.2 Since a spring of fresh water turns the lifeless desert into a life-giving garden, it becomes a spiritual symbol of life. Yet in Noah’s flood, water signifies death and destruction from which sanctuary is needed in the ark. Water is seen as a barrier as well, since the Israelites had to cross the Red Sea to move from slavery to freedom and the Jordan River to find their promised land. Christ, however, brings these aquatic paradoxes to fulfillment in baptism. Just as the triumphant power of the Cross brought life from death, so baptism brings life through water: it leads a Christian from the desert of life outside of Christ to the new garden of the restored Eden of the glorified world; it leads a person from waters of the womb and natural birth to the new waters of supernatural rebirth;3 and it allows a person to pass from the slavery of ignorance to the new life of enlightenment. Baptism makes these invisible ideas

Ravenna’s fifth-century Arian Baptistery includes a dome mosaic showing a vision of full baptismal richness. Around the perimeter of the dome, Saints Peter and Paul walk with the white-robed elders of the Book of Revelation through a heavenly garden punctuated by palm trees, all oriented toward Christ’s heavenly throne. The center of the dome shows the scene of Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan River with the dove of the Holy Spirit above.

real in the life of a catechumen, and in proper mystagogical design, a baptistery allows the viewer to perceive them with the senses and encounter their reality. Since the rite of baptism “is held in the highest honor by all Christians” (General Introduction to Christian Initiation, 4), it comes as no surprise that the Church’s official documents note that a baptistery should be “worthy of the sacrament that is celebrated there.” Therefore, the baptistery should be spotlessly clean, of splendid beauty (BB, 1084), and located in a prominent place.4 Other than that, the Church gives very few specifics on their design, and so the five points below are given to help to reveal the nature of the baptismal font and therefore establish how it ought to be designed. Five Points of Baptistery Design 1. Baptistery and Font The words “baptistery” and “font” are often used interchangeably, yet each has a distinct meaning. Properly speaking, the term “baptistery” belongs to the building, chapel, or place where baptisms occur. The “font” is the actual vessel where the water of baptism is poured or contained. Many baptisteries in older cities are buildings separate from a church or cathedral, within which the font is located and the rites are celebrated. Perhaps surprisingly, several of the Church’s books still presume the possibility of a baptistery that is erected apart from the main body of the church. The Book of Blessings gives several instructions on the topic (1083-1084) and the General Introduction to Christian Initiation notes that the baptistery may be “either inside or outside the church” (25). 2. Immersion, Pouring, Infusion The notes in both the General Introduction to Christian Initiation and the Rite for Christian Initiation of Adults restate what is said clearly in canon 815 of the

Code of Canon Law: baptism may be lawfully celebrated by only two methods, “immersion” or “pouring” (GICI, 22; RCIA, 213). Pouring is simply the more everyday term for “infusion,” meaning that water is poured over a person’s head in baptism while the formula, “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” is said by the minister. The precise definition of immersion is not easy to find in the Church’s documents, however. In some descriptions, it presumes full submersion of a person’s entire body under water. In others, it presumes the person to be baptized will be standing in a significant amount of water and get a substantial drenching through pouring on the head. The National Statutes for the Catechumenate, for example, offers the term “partial immersion,” meaning at least the candidate’s head is brought completely under water.5 While in today’s liturgical climate an immersion baptistery is considered de rigueur, the documents make it clear that a font may be set up for either pouring, immersion, or both (GICI, 22; BB, 1085). However, a clear preference is given to immersion. The Book of Blessings says the font “should permit baptism by immersion, wherever this is the usage” (1085), while the General Introduction to Christian Initiation makes a clearer theological statement, calling immersion “more suitable as a symbol of participating in the death and resurrection of Christ” (22). To further enhance the sign value of baptismal water as the living water of new life, the Book of Blessings recommends a font function as “a fountain of running water” (1085). 3. Tomb and Eighth Day As is typical of the Church’s universal documents, very few specific details are given for baptisteries, although many Please see BAPTISTERY on page 8

Adoremus Bulletin - January 2018 Issue  
Adoremus Bulletin - January 2018 Issue