|The baptismal font at Sts. Anne and Joachim Catholic Church, Fargo, ND. Building design and liturgical furnishings by Liturgical Environs PC. Architect of Record: Zerr-Berg Architects, Fargo ND.|
When we enter a Church, we reach for the holy water stoup to bless ourselves: a symbolic renewal of our baptismal vows in a small and compressed way. This act is part of our entering into Mass, which itself is a compression of the yearly liturgical cycle, which finds its fullest expression in the liturgy of the Paschal Triduum at which adult catechumens are normally baptized. But the yearly cycle, and the Triduum, are themselves compressed expressions of all of salvation history, which begins when “God created heaven and earth, the earth was still an empty waste, darkness hung over the deep, but the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gn 1:1-2) and end with the manifestation of, “the new Jerusalem being sent down by God from heaven, all clothed in readiness, like a bride who has adorned herself to meet her husband” (Rev 21:2). As we shall see, the baptistery, the font, and the rite of baptism are called upon to express and manifest a huge and interwoven body of scriptural, liturgical, and sacramental thought, which frankly is a massively difficult task today.
We might start by understanding that the holy water stoup receives its symbolic imagery from the baptismal font, but the font receives its imagery from creation itself. In the Genesis account of creation and the Garden, there were no doors or portals or gates or walls. The gates of paradise could only be said to be closed after the expulsion; before that all of creation was the domain of man as part of the “garden of delight” into which God placed Adam and Eve. Doors, gates, portals, and such (along with all the symbolism of dwelling apart from nature: the cave, the tent, the house, the temple) are consequences of alienation from God. It is thus fitting that by Jesus’ example, the order of creation is restored through the waters of baptism where we are no longer alienated from God or each other, but rather enter into a new and restored relationship in Christ through this first sacrament. This alienation will only finally and completely be eradicated in the heavenly Jerusalem. Significantly, the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem will never be shut (Rev 21:25). Unlike the ancient Roman portal, or city gate, that was unconsecrated so that unclean things could be carried across the threshold, the gate is Christ himself who calls all nations to himself (Rev 21:26). Nothing unclean or corrupt or mendacious will ever pass the gates for “there is no entrance but for those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27). This passage shows the restoration, even the reversal, of the Fall: now the garden is restored with the life giving waters that flow from the throne of the Lamb (Rev 22:1), the waters nourishing the tree of life that bears fruit all twelve months of the year, the fruit of which brings health to all the nations (Rev 22:2). Recalling the passage in Ezekiel 47, the water flows from the right side of the temple eastward, that is from the side of the crucified body of the Lord. The throne of the Lamb in Revelation 22 can thus be understood to be the cross, for when one of the soldiers pierced the side of the Lord, blood and water flowed out (Jn 19:34).
Thus, baptism not only commences our journey in Christ, it also both causes us to participate in his passion, death, and resurrection, and is a foretaste and promise of our destination in Christ. The intended message of baptism is primal—primal both as “of first importance” and as “originary” both to creation and to our lives as Christians—and this importance was expressed in the early Church by a clear separation between the font and the altar, between the unbaptized catechumens and those who were admitted to the “mysteries” through the disciplina arcani. As St. Justin Martyr tells us of the primitive Christian practice, the catechumens are first brought to a place where there is water to be baptized, and after the new Christian has been washed, is then brought to the places of the Eucharistic assembly. 1 Not until the neophyte (literally, “new growth” as part of the vine and branches imagery) was received into the Church, and taught the fuller mysteries of the Faith, would he or she be admitted to the Eucharist.
The place of baptism in the primitive Church could be any place with water: a public bath, a town well, a spring or river or lake or sea. Christ was baptized in the River Jordan; St. Phillip baptized the Ethiopian official at some non-descript place of water (quamdam aquam); St. Paul found some water to baptize his jailer, and the man’s household. Tertullian, writing in the second century, comments: “it makes no difference whether a man be washed in a sea or a pool, a stream or a fount, a lake or a trough; nor is there any distinction between those whom John baptized in the Jordan and those whom Peter baptized in the Tiber…” 2 The context of this passage gives us insight into the Church’s understanding of the sacraments themselves.
For the North-African theologian, Tertullian, as for the ancients in virtually every culture, water itself was a sacred and life-giving thing, but also a dangerous and deadly thing. Tertullian points out that water is used by all cults as means of purification—the followers of Isis and Mithras, the Zoroastrian, Apollinarian and Eleusinian rituals, the Egyptians, Jews, and Romans, all used water for purification and illumination. Justin Martyr had earlier commented that the healing properties of water were perverted by the demons, such that the false religions also had rituals of washing and sprinkling before entering the temples for their idolatrous practices. 3 Water was, therefore, universally understood to nourish and sustain life, but also was associated with both death by drowning, as well as various maladies of madness such as “nympholepsy”, “hydrophobia,” and “lymphatic” illness. Sacred springs were places of healing, such as the Pool of Siloam (Jn 9:7ff), or at Bethsaida that was stirred by the angel for healing (Jn 5:2-4), as well as for the pagans at Sulis Minerva, which is now the City of Bath. Conversely, swamps and putrid waters were places of contagion and evil, inhabited by evil spirits. Because of the primal and cosmological nature of water—that “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters”—water itself is “in a manner endued with medicinal virtues.” The Spirit of God continues to hover over all water, which is the cause of its holiness, and becomes the apt sacramental symbol for new life, cleansing, and sanctifying: “Thus the nature of the waters, sanctified by the Holy One, itself conceived, therefore, the power of sanctifying.” 4
Tertullian thus considered water as the apt symbol of baptism—not merely by some general sign-value that we are washed in water, or that we are born and nourished in water, or that it can express death in Christ—but because the Spirit of God continues to linger over the waters and, so by divine fiat, water is itself a source of sanctification. It is a proper sacramental sign since by revelation we know it is an outward sign of an inward grace in the operation of the Holy Spirit, much as by the words of institution by Christ, the bread and wine used as Mass are, indeed, the Body and Blood.
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