Monday, November 10, 2008

On the border: Baptism at the center of our life

You may have noticed that we’ve moved the baptismal font to the center of the aisle in front of the first row of pews, a few feet away from the Eucharistic Holy Table. The location is at the geographic center of the church building and at the place that can be called “the crossing” of the church.

Credit Alice Fitch with making an observation that got me thinking about moving the location of the font. The baptismal font has been off to the side, near the base of the platform holding the Holy Table. We last used the font on All Saints Sunday when we baptized five small children. Alice brought to my attention that when we invited all of the children to come forward to see the baptisms they couldn’t see much. With the font off on one side, and the children off on the other side, all the children could see were the legs of the people standing between them and the font.

That is when it struck me that we should put the font in the geographic center of the sanctuary – not just so everyone can see a little better – especially children – but also to symbolize the centrality of baptism in our walk of faith.

In the architecture of ancient churches, the baptismal font was placed at the entrance of the sanctuary, or “nave,” symbolic of how baptism is the entry point into the Christian community and points toward the Eucharistic table at the front of the nave. Many contemporary churches are now designed that way, including All Souls Parish in Berkeley where I previously served. The font at All Souls is a few feet inside the doorway, and when we conducted baptisms at All Souls, we moved the baptismal parties and the clergy en masse to the back of the church. Everyone in the pews had to stand up and turn around to see. The nave was small enough that it generally worked, and we invited all of the children to the back of the church to watch the baptisms.

St. Paul’s, however, is not designed for placing the font at the entrance, at least not without removing much needed seating. Even if we did that, to make everyone stand and face backwards in such a large nave would be awkward at best, and few would see much of anything.

Placing the St. Paul’s baptismal font at the “crossing” gives us the symbolism of baptism leading to Eucharist. Even when we are not conducting baptisms, the font remains visible to us during our worship. The font remains an enduring reminder of the centrality of our baptism, and a powerful symbol of our communion with Christ and with all who have gone before us who have been baptized in that font.

Why, though, do we baptize children and babies? Isn’t all this symbolism lost on them? Those are good questions, ones that have sparked much conflict among Christians over many centuries. That conflict, though, need not be so.

In the view of the Episcopal Church, baptism is an “outward and visible sign” (i.e., a sacrament) of the inward reality of the Holy Spirit working in each of us. It is also the initiation into the church. Why would we wait to initiate people into the Church? Does it matter if we understand all of this fully? Do any of us understand this fully?

If we are all truly the arms and feet of Christ in the world, and if Christ needs all of us, then children must be included, too. Daniel B. Stevick, in his book published by the Episcopal Church, Baptismal Moments; Baptismal Meanings (1987), puts it quite eloquently:

“Baptism is a sacrament of beginnings, of newness, of grace, of a fresh start with history, and in the depths of individual life. It is the beginning of life in Christ and his people. It is the sign of the new life which is always coming into being within the old but ever young Church. It is the Christian Gospel in action, declaring and effecting the new age in Christ. Baptism is the ritual side of the mysterious way by which world passes over into church and church reaches into the world.”

Stevick also notes (p. 31) that our baptism puts us in tension with the society in which we live. At its root, baptism is counter-cultural. In our baptismal covenant we pledge to “respect the dignity of every human being” and “to love our neighbors” and to “work for justice and peace.” Those pledges, if we take them seriously, will put us at odds with the culture of greed and violence that surrounds us. Stevick writes:

“Being a good member of the society does not necessarily support being a good Christian. Being a good Christian may set one against society at crucial points.”

Our baptismal font in the center of the church is an enduring reminder, I believe, of our baptismal covenant, and of the tension in which we live because of our baptism. We are different because of our baptism. Stevick writes:

“Christian Baptism is a border rite. It marks the boundary between Church and not-Church… To be marked with the sign of the cross may make one a marked person.”

Welcome to the border – the border of the Holy. Welcome to baptism into the life of Christ.



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