I’ve been taking pictures of church interiors since high school. It was a challenge back then because my cameras were not at all sophisticated and the film was too slow to light up those dark sanctuaries. As years went by, I began focusing on architectural details: stained glass designs, a wood carving, a cross, or, as in today’s photo, a sacramental symbol. This is the baptismal font in First Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Without going into a theological discourse on the meaning of baptism in the Reformed tradition, I just want to study this picture for a moment and tell you what I see, and why I’ve chosen this phoB0003625to from all the other baptismal “furniture” images I’ve got filed away.

First, if you look closely you might realize that this baptismal font is right in the middle of the center aisle of the sanctuary. In fact, the font is in the midst of the people as they gather for worship. Note how the pews on the right have been shortened to make room around the font. A familiar exhortation, especially following the administration of the  sacrament, is “Remember your baptism!” In this church, it’s easy to remember, because the font is right there, impossible to overlook, and worship takes place around what I once told children was “the promise place.”

Next, notice that there is no cover, no removable cap or top. Most churches have some sort of cover, some quite ornate, but if you ask the clergy why it’s there, you get no more than a shrug. Between baptisms, the font is dry in most churches. It’s not as if we need to keep bugs from swimming around in there, nor is it necessary to “cap off the well” and lock it down lest someone steal the water. No one at this Santa Fe church thought it important to guard the font with a top. So, the message here is, the font is always open, welcoming, inviting.

(If I recall correctly, many centuries ago baptismal fonts did have covers and even locks to keep both the pious and superstitious from stealing the “holy water” and sprinkling it on their fields, believing that there was a magical element in the H2O that would guarantee fertility. And the covers were handy too as a matter of cleanliness when water was kept in the font for long periods of time.)

That welcome is evident too in the pitcher of water that stands glistening, ready for pouring, and the naming, the promising, initiating, and sending forth that the sacrament offers. In our Reformed theology, it’s not as if someone walks into the church on a Wednesday, pours water into the font, and does the grace-filled deed. We baptize in the midst of the gathered community of faith, where Word and Sacrament are wed, and God’s children become one in the family of faith.  No private ceremonies here; the sacrament is a communal event of grace and joy. But I do appreciate the symbol here of water so ready to be used for holy purpose.

One quick story about another kind of “font.” When I was called to serve as pastor of a small, rural church in northern Vermont, on my first Sunday there I noticed there was no baptismal font. Odd. Curious, I asked around and someone said that there hadn’t been a baptism for awhile, and the silver dish they had used in the past was probably put away somewhere. Sure enough, in the clutter of the pulpits innards (you’d be surprised at what you’ll find inside most church pulpits– many are like open cabinets in the back, filled with old candles, tissue packages, golf pencils, the occasional sticky horehound drop!)…well, there was the little silver dish, tarnished and askew, a dish just deep enough to hold sufficient water (we Presbyterians can immerse or pour, but mostly we sprinkle) .

“I’d like that kept in view, ” I said to an elder who helped me find it, “to remind us each week of our baptisms.” She took it home that day, and the following Sunday the shining silver dish was placed on the pulpit next to the big Bible, Word and Sacrament together helping us remember who we are and to whom we belong.

Silver dish, wooden sculpture, or granite hulk, the “promise place” is our home base.

[A footnote: I cannot describe the deep joy I experience in worshipping today in the very church in which I was baptized as a toddler. I may not remember the day or the act, but I am deeply grateful for the sacred space of my home church.]

 

 

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