Monday, May 25, 2009

An Argument for the Blessing of the Baptismal Font

We are in the midst of the Ascension Octave, which means that among other things, liturgists can be found thinking about the Pentecost Vigil, or Whitsun-Eve, as it is variously called. So, for example, the question has been raised at both Gottesblog and at the Gottesdienst Online blog whether it is appropriate to practice the blessing of the Baptismal Font, which includes the dipping of the Paschal candle into the waters of the font (It unnecessarily prejudices the issue, I think, to refer to this as "baptizing" the candle, at least within our present setting). Lovers of the traditional liturgy of the Western Church are not, and need not always be, as Fr. Larry Beane put it recently, "in lock step." So I am bold to respectfully and cordially differ from Frs. Eckardt, Stuckwisch, and others, by offering a defense of this ceremony, for it is a traditional element of the Western liturgy which is replete with rich Christian images and symbols, and I think that the best way to defend it is just to shed a bit of light on it.

In discussing this ceremony, by the way, I will be making reference to its traditional form, which failed to completely survive Pope Pius XII's liturgical revisions of 1951 and 1955. It can be found in Latin texts, of course, and also in several editions of the first half of the twentieth century which included English translations; perhaps my overall favorite is the so called New Roman Missal of 1945, prepared under the leadership of Father F. X. Lasance. I hasten to add, however, that if I quote from the Psalms in English, it will be the Coverdale, and if other scripture in English, it will be the King James.

When we look at this ancient ceremony, which has been practiced in Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches, even some of our own Missouri Synod Churches (I have seen it done at various points of my life in Lutheran parishes, for example, since I was a child), one of the first things to note is that it is given to us in the liturgy not once, but twice each year. It is part of the Paschal Vigil, and then, fifty days later, we see it in the Vigil of Pentecost, which seems to be celebrated these days much less often than the Paschal Vigil, but is there nonetheless. Why would the Baptismal waters be blessed twice, just a few weeks from each other? (By the way, this is called the Blessing of the Baptismal Font in some books, but it is really a blessing of the waters of the Font.) I find it almost reminiscent of the fact that the traditional Baptismal rite contains not one, but two exorcisms. Good and important things are worth repeating. Repetition is a way of emphasizing, driving home important truths. It draws attention to what the Church considers to be of greatest importance. The Church takes the reality of the devil very seriously. In Christ, the Church has power over the devil and his forces in this world, and this she takes seriously as well. It is good for this blessing to take place twice each year, for not only is it a rich, multisensory lesson in the Gospel, but indeed it is the Gospel in action.

The ceremony begins as a tract from Psalm 42 is sung while the priest and his ministers make their way to the baptistry, or if there is no baptistry, wherever the font is located. On Holy Saturday the Paschal candle will be carried with them; on the Pentecost Vigil the candle will already be there.

Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God. When shall I come to appear before the presence of God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?

This beautiful text sets the tone for a ceremony that will be focused on highlighting the great blessings, and indeed the essential importance in our life, of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. It has inspired churches of earlier ages to paint or sculpt on the sides of baptismal fonts images of deer drinking from a stream of water.

At the entrance to the baptistry, the officiating priest gives the salutation, and then prays the following collect.

O almighty, eternal God, favorably regard the devotion of Thy people, who are to be born again in Thee, and who, even as the hart, seeketh after the fountain of Thy waters, grant propitiously that the thirst of faith itself may, by the mystery of baptism, sanctify soul and body. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.

Then as they enter into the baptistry (or approach the font), the priest says the salutation again, and then prays the following over the font.

Almighty, eternal God, be Thou present in the mysteries of Thy great goodness; be Thou present in the sacraments; and send forth the Spirit of adoption to create anew the new peoples which the font of Baptism beareth unto Thee; that what is to be done by the ministry of our lowliness may be fulfilled by the effect of Thy power. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.

The next part resembles, and indeed uses the chant tones of, the preface of the eucharist.

The Lord be with you. And with thy spirit.

Lift up your hearts. We lift them up unto the Lord.

Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God. It is meet and right so to do.

It is truly meet and just, right and salutary, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto Thee, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, Who by a power unseen by man dost wonderfully work the effect of Thy sacraments. And although we be unworthy of the performance of such great mysteries, nevertheless, not deserting the gifts of Thy grace, Thou dost incline the ear of Thy pity, even to our prayers. O God, Whose Spirit was borne upon the waters in the very first beginning of the world, that even then the nature of the waters might be impregnated with sanctifying power; O God, Who, washing out with Thy waters the guilt of an offending world, didst exhibit the form of regeneration in the very pouring forth of the flood, that by the mystery of one and the same element there might be both an end to sin and a beginning of righteousness; look, O Lord, upon the face of Thy Church, and multiply Thy regenerations in her, Thou Who dost gladden Thy city with the tide of Thine affluent grace, and dost open the fountain of Baptism for the renewal of the nations throughout all the world, that, by the command of Thy majesty, she may receive from the Holy Ghost the grace of Thine only-begotten Son.

With this prayer, we begin to really see the pneumatic (and hence Pentecost-appropriate) elements of Baptism. Holy Baptism is the ongoing triumph of the resurrected Christ, and so it is very relevant to the Paschal celebration. Yet Baptism is a multifaceted mystery, and another facet is that it is the work of the Spirit of God, and so the night before the great and joyous Pentecost feast is a most relevant time for the people of God to be ritually and ceremonially taught again the great truths of the essence, gift, and significance of Baptism.

We also see in this prayer, I suggest, hints of the marital relationship between Christ and his beloved bride the Church. For the Church, the womb of which, so to speak, is the baptismal font, bears children to her Lord, Who in fact is the one Who impregnates her by the power of His Word.

Moreover, we have here strong Mosaic themes, of creation, and of the flood. Luther also famously made use of the diluvial motif, and in doing so, he showed himself not only a sacramentally astute Old Testament exegete, but also a great follower of churchly tradition. Moses is rich in sacramental and christological doctrine, even in his opening creation narrative, doctrine which comes to life in a ceremony such as this.

By the way, in the fruitful maternity, yet simultaneously immaculate and holy virginity, of the womb of the font, we also have deeply Marian themes, which will come closer to the surface later.

At this point, the priest puts his hand into the water, and divides the water in the form of a cross, as he continues:

And may that same Holy Ghost, by the hidden virtue of His Godhead, make fruitful this water prepared for the regeneration of men, that a heavenly offspring, conceived in sanctification, may emerge from the immaculate womb of this divine font, reborn to newness of life, and that grace as a mother may bring forth every one, how different so ever in age or sex, into a like spiritual infancy. At Thy bidding, therefore, O Lord, may every unclean spirit depart from hence; far be removed all malice of diabolical deceit. Here let no admixture of the enemy's power have any place; let it not hover in ambush; let it not creep in unperceived; let it not corrupt with infection.

He touches the water with his hand, and continues:

May this holy and innocent creature be free from every assault of the adversary and purged of every flaw of wickedness. May it be a living fountain, a regenerating water, a purifying tide, that all who shall be washed in these waters of salvation may, by the working of the Holy Ghost in them, obtain the favor of perfect cleansing.

At this point I think some not accustomed to this ceremony will feel as though the water is being treated too much as though it were a person in need of salvation. The sentiment is understandable. I suggest, however, that something as important and valuable to the life of the church as the baptismal water we do well to bless and consecrate in a special way. Let us also bear in mind that the danger of satanic assault on the church and her members, and even on the very sacramental acts of the church, is real, and by the Word of God and prayer we do well to ritually and reverently take on such danger.

The priest at this point makes the sign of the cross over the water three times, as he says:

Wherefore, I bless thee, o creature of water, in the name of the living + God, of the true + God, of the holy + God, of the God Who, in the beginning, by His Word divided thee from the dry land; Whose Spirit was borne upon thee.

The priest casts the water with his hand to the north, south, east, and west, and then says:

He it was Who bade thee to flow from the fountain of paradise and commanded thee to water all the earth in four rivers; Who, when thou wast bitter in the desert, put sweetness into thee, made thee good to drink, and drew thee from the rock for the thirsty people. I bless + thee also in the name of Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who, by a wonderful miracle in Cana of Galilee, converted thee into wine, Who with His feet walked upon thee, and was baptized in thee by John in Jordan; Who gave thee forth together with blood from His side, and ordered His disciples that those who believed should be baptized in thee, saying: Go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Do Thou, O almighty God, of Thy clemency be with us while we keep these precepts; do thou benignly inspire us.

At this point the priest breathes on the water three times in the form of a cross, and then continues:

These pure waters Thou wilt bless with Thy mouth, that besides the natural cleansing which they can perform in the washing of bodies, they may also be efficacious for the purifying of souls.

Here let us note that right after a section in which the second Person of the Trinity is invoked for blessing, the priest himself breathes on the water, reminiscent of how the priest breathes the Words of Christ over the bread and wine at the altar. Of course it also reminds us of the breathing over the baptismal candidate. For here the Christological character of the Office of the ordained Ministry is portrayed clearly and unmistakably. It is Christ who blesses, and when He does, He always does so, so to speak, in the form of the cross.

The priest now takes the Paschal candle, and dips it into the water three times, each time a bit more deeply, as he says:

May the virtue of the Holy Ghost descend upon all the contents of this font.

Let us now pause to reflect upon this action. The priest, Who stands in the office of Christ, takes the Paschal candle, which is one of the most profound symbols of Christ in the Church, and sinks it into the water. This tells us that, again, it is Christ who is blessing this font of baptismal water and making it a holy water, that is, water set aside for Christic and Spiritual use. I really hesitate to go into my next thought, because I try to be a gentleman and we must be careful when we treat such matter, so bear with me. The Paschal candle, strong symbol of Christ that it is, is manfully held by the priest, who then plants it into the waters of this ecclesial womb of the font. When seen in this way, we see, I think, that it is not the candle that is being baptized, but that the water is being blessed in so many ways in this rich and symbol ridden ceremony.

The priest then breathes on the water, making the form of the Greek letter Psi, signifying the word for Spirit (psykhe), which begins with that letter in Greek. It might be worth noting that while we tend to think, in the theological realm, of pneuma when we think of "spirit," and associate psykhe more so with "soul," which distinction I do not condemn, we need to bear in mind that such a hard and fast distinction is a later development, not necessarily meaningful in the ancient world. "Anima" in Latin, I would argue, is similarly capable of a double meaning.

After taking the candle out of the water, he says:

Here may the stains of all sins be washed away; here may nature, created to Thine image, and reformed to the honorable estate of its origin, be cleansed of all the foulness of the past, that every human being, by entering into this sacrament of regeneration, may be born again into a new infancy of true innocence. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who shall come to judge the quick and the dead, and the world, by fire. Amen.

Another thought. Very often in the Church we hear of the importance of maturing in the faith, and of learning to move past the milk of infancy and immaturity, that we may take on more meaningfully the meat of God's Word. There is truth in this; St. Paul uses the theme of the word as meat. Yet we must never forget the fundamentally important truth that the Christian in another sense remains always an infant, happily feeding upon the pure milk of the Word. When we speak of "returning to our Baptism," we are really talking about being restored to spiritual infancy, not in the sense of immaturity, but rather in the sense of a pure filial relationship with our mother the Church, and the pure food she feeds us in Christ. This theme is found in this ceremony more than once, and reminds us also of the Paschaltide introit, Quasi Modo Geniti Infantes: "As newborn babes, alleluia, desire the sincere milk of the Word," etc.

In the final part of this ceremony, the priest pours a little of the oil of catechumens into the font, as he says,

May this font be sanctified and made fruitful of the oil of salvation to those who are born again from it unto everlasting life. Amen.

He then pours some of the chrism oil, saying,

May the infusion of the chrism of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, be made in the name of the Holy Trinity. Amen.

He then pours some of both oils, simultaneously into the water, and says,

May the mixture of the chrism of sanctification, and the oil of unction, and the water of Baptism, be made in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This is the traditional ceremony of the Blessing of the Baptismal Font. I find it deeply rich and evangelical, and I have seen how much parishioners of all walks of life love and appreciate it. It engenders respect for the Font and its water, and therefore it engenders added and renewed respect for Baptism itself.

Whether, and to what extent, a parish, school, or seminary uses this ceremony must be left to the judgement of the local pastor. Is right now the right time for this ceremony? Yes, though not in every place and context.


Father Hollywood said...

Well said, Br. Latif! I took the liberty of posting a link at Gottesdienst Online.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Very kind of you, Father. The more I think on it, I must say I am more convinced that the marital imagery I briefly covered in my little piece is a good example of how the traditional liturgy contains a deeply ingrained masculinity, which could help us counter the feminism of our age, and of our modern church manifested as it is even in its liturgy and hymns. Such things might even bring men back into the church.

Fr BFE said...


I am intrigued and not a little honored that someone as learned as you should take up the challenge which I implicitly laid forth in my original post. What I mean is that, if I may say this, there are few who would have the background to understand the nature of my original query. It's easy to get people to agree with the admittedly 'protestant' sentiments I expressed there; it is harder to find someone who is willing to engage them at the level both of respecting the tradition and of maintaining an evangelical bearing.

That said, my concern is, I hope, not unlike the concern of Martin Luther with respect to the baptismal rite he inherited. You will recall that he excised much that was superfluous, although he retained much more than the modern 'Lutheran' church subsequently put away (the LSB Agenda has, thankfully, restored some of that).

His concern, as I recall, was that the abundant use of such things as the exsufflation, the salt over the shoulder, etc., while in themselves innocent and well-intentioned enough, had the overall effect of distracting from the essence of Baptism itself, and thus he curtailed and excised quite a bit from the traditional rite.

I dare say, given in particular the, ah, masculine meaning you have attached to elements of the vigil rite, that you will most certainly run the risk of distracting rather than achieving that which may well in all good faith may have been intended.

With well-placed trepidation over awareness at curtailing something whose age is venerable, I am nevertheless willing to count this an item best curtailed.

I hate to say this, dear friend, and I admit to being somewhat amused right now, but you might even say that your post unwittingly talked me the more into it.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Fr. Fritz,

I appreciate your thoughtful continuation of the conversation. Since, as I have said, I believe the ultimate decision on a matter like this to be best left in the hands of the local pastor, I would not condemn your own opinion on this.

Three thoughts immediately come to me, though, in response to your comment.

First, I honestly believe that the best, and maybe only true, way to gain an appreciation of the evangelical and pastoral character, relevance, and usefulness of this ceremony is to see it practiced, perhaps for several years, rather than merely exchanging theories on it. Please know that I do not say this as a clever way to cut off debate, or to invalidate criticism. I simply remain convinced, maybe even more so, now that I have seen your comment, that we humans are very much influenced, both positively and negatively, by our own history and experience.

Second, even though I love you, I must say, in all respect, that it does not help your case when you mischaracterize things, as, eg., when you refer to salt being thrown over the shoulder in Baptism. I admit that I might be wrong, and am willing to be corrected, but at this moment i do not recall that this has ever been part of Christian Baptism. What I do know is that salt, in the traditional Roman Rite, is placed on the tongue of the one to be baptized, and this is not for superstitious reasons, but as a symbol Salt is the symbol of divine wisdom, a wisdom which gives us the sweetness of God's Word, the preservation of the soul against sin, and indeed, the taste for good works. I do think that salt was overused in the traditional Latin Rite, but in the Baptismal Rite it is not necessarily objectionable. Luther, let us recall, included it in his 1523 order. He left it out in his 1526 order, but it cannot thereby be considered somehow unLutheran. It might indeed be wise, in the case of salt, to be careful in implementing such a practice. I would certainly include it, though, with the blessing of the Font, in the category of liturgical practices which can be practiced with care, to great spiritual benefit, among those who are ready for it.

Third, the concern to beware of things that might distract from the essence of things, such as the essential marks of the Church, has led some to do away with the sign of the cross, vestments, and other 'extras.' Care does always need to be taken, and I am not arguing that every place in the LCMS is equally ready for the traditional Pentecost Vigil, or that it is as important as the daily use of the sign of the cross, but with care, all of these things can be shown to the Baptized to be excellent aids, not distractions.

Fr BFE said...

Quickly, three things (my family beckons):

First and foremoset, I have in fact used the Pentecost Vigil already. I used it last year, and perhaps even the year before (can't remember). It is indeed after having struggled to do such things as blow in the shape of a psi and things like that, that I was led to reconsider. So please bear that in mind as a starting point.

Second, I may be mistaken about the salt, though I do still think it possible that there was some tossing. Could be wrong on that, though; I was operating from memory of the Luther reference alone.

Third, as I indicated, the rituals in themselves are likely worthy ones, but I found the abundance of them somehow too much. Perhaps in another setting I would not have thought so.

Your comments on the sign of the cross, etc. are good ones, I think.

Dcn. Muehlenbruch said...


Your post is an excellent defense of the ceremonial of the blessing of the baptismal font; but I do not see Fr. Fritz questioning the value of these ceremonies. I read the question of "too much ceremony" as a repeat of the ceremonies that are a part of the Easter Vigil. I addressed this in a reply to his post.

I think that we are alike in our appreciation of the historic ceremonial. Ceremony is graphic demonstration of what we believe. Our Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, if you will.

I this case, however, I see "too much ceremony" as a question of "If we do this at Easter, why do we do it again at Pentecost?"

I invite you to see my post in reply to Fr. Fritz on Gottesblog. (Sorry, but am not quite sure how to link you directly to his site.)

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Fr. Eckardt and Dcn. Muehlenbruch,
Thank you very much for your comments. I find them helpful, though too kind. Now it's back to hotel work.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

One more quick note: the exsufflation cannot be counted as an example of something that is unknown to modern Lutheran Baptisms, and therefore necessarily a distraction. It is part of the regular, routinely practiced baptismal rite used at Zion, Fort Wayne, among other parishes. Zion comes to mind right away, for it is a prominent urban parish with seminary profs in its membership (even wise members of the C&P committee), a place where several seminarians each year receive invaluable 'field education,' etc. Not only the exsufflation, but also the Ephphatha is practiced there. And Zion is by no means alone.

Both of these practices are in the 1523, but not the 1526 rite.

Past Elder said...

The Vigil of Pentecost, which still existed in RCC missals in my youth, explained it simply that in ancient times those who for some good reason had not been baptised at the Easter Vigil would be baptised at this time, no further theological elaboration.

Marco da Vinha said...

Where exactly does the explanation of the use of the Psi as a symbol for spirit come from? I would really like to understand this better.