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.