There are baptismal fonts of all shapes and sizes in the churches of our Diocese. Some fonts are so small that they are barely practical for the baptism of a mouse, others are so large and imposing that family and friends have to guess what is going on inside them. Some of our fonts have heavy lids on them, like our great font, dating back to a time when people feared that otherwise the water inside them would be stolen for use in black magic; others (like the fonts in the parishes of Lakes and Cardiff) are wide and deep enough for adults to be fully immersed under the water in them.
The architecture of some of our churches was designed to provide sufficient space at the back of the Church for the font to be near the door, so that whenever Christians came into or left the Church building they passed the place where they had been baptised into Christ. In other churches the font stands near to the altar so that it can be prominently seen by everyone who gathers for worship. A powerful reminder that whilst we are sustained and kept in eternal life through the Eucharist, it was through our baptism that the door to that new life was opened for us.
In this Church we have the best of both situations. The font that we use week by week is brought to the chancel steps when we baptise as a powerful and central symbol, and the great font at the North door allows us to pass by the water of baptism every time we enter this building. One reminds us of the centrality of baptism in our life, and the other reminds us that it is through baptism that we enter into a living relationship with God.
We have the great privilege here of receiving children for baptism most weeks of the year outside of the Season of Lent. Last year, in 2013, there were more people baptised into the life of Christ in this church building than in any year since 1997. So we celebrate the great privilege that has been entrusted to us here at Saint Peter’s.
But it would be hard to miss the differences between the rather sanitised version of baptism which we practice in our fonts as Anglicans and the baptism being offered in the River Jordan by John that we heard about in our Gospel reading a few moments ago. Our fonts – whatever they look like, wherever they are positioned – owe more to the growth of cities, and the lack of accessible clean streams and rivers in which to baptise people in, than they do to anything more profoundly theological.
We cannot know exactly why it was that Jesus himself came to that river to be baptised by John at the inauguration of his ministry. Perhaps Jesus wanted to signal that he was uniting himself with the prophetic and radical tradition that John embodied. Perhaps Jesus was offering a sign of his messianic vocation to bring reconciliation between God and humanity, identifying with us in our own need for forgiveness. Perhaps Jesus wanted to show those who would later follow him that John’s very Jewish rite of purification was a kind of prototype of the Christian baptism that was to come. Perhaps it was only at the moment of his baptism that Jesus himself realised why he was there. We do not know.
What we do discover through the account painted for us by the Gospel writers is that as Jesus is baptised what has been offered to him rather hesitantly by John is transformed into something that is bestowed on him by God his Father. What is taking place becomes much more than a sign of the forgiveness of sins, as it has been for every one else who has come for baptism at the hands of John. As Jesus is baptised it is a confirmation of the gift of the Spirit, and Jesus’ dignity as the beloved Son of God.
As he rises out of the water the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a voice proclaims divine sonship: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. What was true for Jesus in that one moment at the commencement of his ministry, has been true for all who have been baptised ever since. We are washed, we are filled with the Spirit, and God says to each one of us, “because of my one and only Son you are also my beloved, my beloved sons and daughters as well.”
Reflection on Christian baptism in the New Testament does not stop there. The earliest Christian communities thought deeply about what baptism meant for them using a range of images that have now become very familiar to us. For example, being born again: a new spiritual birth from above; being brought from darkness into light or being illumined; being clothed with Christ. Even more radically in the writings of Saint Paul, being united with Christ in such a mystical way that his death becomes our death, his burial becomes our burial, his rising again becomes our rising again.
That is why when we baptise here in this Church we baptise with water as a sign of God’s life, we anoint with the Oil of Sacred Chrism as a sign of the dignity which has been assured, and we present a candle lit from our paschal Easter candle, as a reminder that those who are baptised have been clothed with the light of Christ; because, through baptism, Christ’s story becomes our story so that we are re-constituted in him, joined by faith and baptism, to those saving events that bring us to salvation.
Listen to these words from the instructions for the newly baptised in Jerusalem from one of the earliest Christian communities: ‘Now that you have been baptised into Christ and have put on Christ, you have become conformed to the Son of God… since you share in Christ, it is right to call you ‘Christs’ or anointed ones… You have become ‘Christs’ by receiving the sign of Holy Spirit… When you emerged from the pool of sacred waters you were anointed in a manner corresponding to Christ’s anointing. That anointing is the Holy Spirit… Christ was anointed with… and you have been anointed with chrism because you have become fellows and sharers of Christ…’
When John baptised in the River Jordan, out in the wilderness, he was pointing to the in-breaking of the Kingdom, to a time when the messianic age would come in its fullness. When Christians baptise we celebrate our incorporation not only into that new age but also into the one who brings that new age into being, Jesus Christ himself. Whilst the baptism offered by John looked expectantly for a new day to come, it remained for the moment within the normal cycle of life, the seven days of the week. But in Christian baptism that cycle is transformed.
That is why if you look closely at our great font at the North door you will see that it has eight sides. These eight sides symbolise for us the belief at the heart of our faith that those who are baptised no longer live in the normal seven day cycle of this world, they live in the eighth day, the new day of the week, the eternal life of God’s unending love. We who have been baptised do not look forward to eternal life as if it something that will come later, we live in the eighth day now, we are joined now in Christ’s eternal life through baptism, and sustained in it through Holy Communion and our fellowship together as members of Christ’s body – that is the reality of what God has done for us through our baptism.
The problem is that we live in a time when the old age that is passing away and the new age which is being brought to birth continue to run in parallel. The trouble is that the radical call of our baptism is masked when we settle down into complacency, into spectatorship, into a disfigured understanding of what active Christian living is all about.
Why not take time as you leave this church building today to look at our font? Notice the beautiful scenes depicted in the panels of the baptism of Our Lord (which we celebrate with Christians around the world today), and the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by the Apostle Philip, and the baptism of Cornelius by Peter, and the image of Christ calling his children to himself and blessing them. These four scenes are separated by the figures of the four evangelists, the ones who bring us the good news of new life in Jesus. Have a look at them as you leave church today, touch the eight sides of the font, and remember that through your own baptism you now live in the eighth day of eternal life with Christ, with all those who we have loved and see now longer at this time, all who have gone before us in the life of the Church.
Today we join with Christians around the world as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. And in so doing we celebrate our own baptisms into the eternal life of God’s love. At this Mass we take hold of the dignity that is ours through Christ. But we remember too that that dignity is not a private possession, it is Christ’s not ours.
God says to us, as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, “through Christ you are my beloved sons and daughters in whom I am well pleased; be refreshed here, that you may shine as a light in the world for my glory, live in the eighth day, the eternal life which has already begun in you.”