Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Let’s Talk Jacuzzi Fonts: Part 3

January 14th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Part 1, Part 2

I don’t have a memory of my own birth but I’ve read that being born is a very sensational –traumatic even- experience for the baby (the mother, too, of course –so I’m told). The baby is evicted from a nice warm, comfortably cozy place into a cold, noisy, scratchy environment in which he is poked, prodded and otherwise ill treated. To the child, the event is huge –memorable, you would think. In fact, I think I’ve also read that we hold onto an unconscious memory of our birth. Not unconscious for our moms, though.

Christian Baptism is a birth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist) as bearing “a certain likeness to the origin, development, and nourishing of natural life. The faithful are born anew by Baptism…” (CCC 1212)  It, too, is a kind of birth from out of darkness into bright light; from death, to life in Christ. And like our moms at our natural birth, so also Mother Church brings us forth in our second birth, our Baptism. Like our natural birth, our spiritual rebirth should be memorable both for us and for our Mother -the Church (those gathered for the Baptism).

It is to ‘memory’ or ‘memorable’ that I would like to call your attention.

The Catechism (1213) identifies Holy Baptism as “the gateway to life in the spirit and which gives access to the other sacraments… we are freed… and reborn as sons of God… ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.’”  Think of that phrase, water as “the gateway to life in the spirit.” The water is a sacramental, sanctified by Christ going down into the water of the Jordan River. His body sanctified the water. In the rite of Baptism the priest first blesses the water, imparting Christ’s impact on the water of the Jordan to the water to be used for this particular baptism. As a gateway the water is like a sacred portal. There was a movie some years ago –I don’t remember the name; “portal’” might even have been in the title- in which people would step through an energy field that looked and acted very much like water. When a person walked through it he was instantly transported to another place. I think of that scene when I see a baptism by immersion while the words of Baptism are recited and the person disappears into the water and then re-emerges. The sanctified water washes across the body and slides off of it resulting in a rebirth to another life. In full immersion, when re-emerging, the head and face break through the surface of the water and the person gasps for air or at least looks startled. That’s pretty memorable, not only for the initiate but also for the witnesses.

To “plunge” or “immerse”, the Catechism points out (1214), is the meaning of the word, baptize. In the context of the rite of Baptism to “plunge” into the water and to be covered by the water “symbolizes the catechumen’s burial into Christ’s death, from which he rises up by the resurrection with him, as a new ‘creature.’”  “Taking the plunge” is rather more memorable in baptism by immersion. In fact, the cistern resembles a stone tomb dug and fashioned in the ground. In some you step down into the tomb on one side and then rise up on the other side, further adding to the experience, going down one way and coming out by another route. Going down into the water and into the tomb is uncomfortable, which is why the water should not be warm. It is intense and traumatic for the candidate but coming up out of the water, up and out of the tomb, is a relief and refreshing. Again, for the candidate, the experience is memorable but also for the Church –the witnesses around the cistern- for the action is dramatic and therefore also memorable especially when viewed repeatedly over the years.

Who would disagree that taking a shower or bath renders one cleaner than merely washing one’s hands? Now, Baptism by pouring water over the forehead is just as effective as full body immersion. The catechumen has been washed clean of sin in either case. But which is more memorable if we describe, as the Catechism does, Baptism as a “bath” (1216)? The Catechism quotes Church Father Justin Martyr who wrote that Baptism is called a “bath” of enlightenment; St. Gregory of Nazianzus refers to it as –among other things- a “bath of rebirth” and a “bath because it washes.”

Finally, then, the Catechism speaks of the Old Testament prefigurations of the sacrament of Baptism: Noah and his family saved from the flood –redeemed from sin and a sinful world and set apart to begin anew; the crossing of the Red Sea by going through the water which has parted for them and through which they attain liberty –spiritual freedom, and grace to follow the Lord; and the crossing between the parted waters of the Jordan River, like the Red Sea, only this time to accept the gift of the land from God –the ‘type’ of the gift of eternal life for the Christian (1217-1222). Those were dramatic, awe-inspiring, memorable events.

The sacrament of Baptism should be as memorable an event for the catechumen as natural birth, and also for the Church that witnesses the rebirth, the Church responsible for bringing forth the new birth.

In Part 4, I would like to make some summary observations concerning sacramental ‘signs’ and choices, discuss ‘memory’ relative to infant baptism, and offer my opinion as to what baptismal fonts should look like.

Wow! No stones. Have I at least given some pause to think more agreeably about cistern fonts?


Picture source:

Portal scene:

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10 Responses to “Let’s Talk Jacuzzi Fonts: Part 3”

  1. Louis E. says:

    I consider requiring someone’s face to go underwater as terrifying and disrespectful.

  2. Mike says:

    There was a movie some years ago …

    Bernie, I believe you’re thinking of Stargate. The original came out in the 1990s and eventually spawned a sequel or two along with a couple of TV series, an animated version or two and a line of kids’ toys.

    I always thought that portal you describe was pretty cool. The last few seconds of this clip from one of the TV series show the star gate being activated and the lead characters going through it.

  3. Ben Anderson says:

    Since the vast majority of baptisms are infants, I’m wondering how it works. Would you dunk an infant completely under water?

  4. David says:

    We are saving our stones for bigger fish.

  5. Bernie says:

    Hi Ben,
    There is probably not a mother alive who would allow anyone to completely submerge her child. Check with your wife. I’m thinking she will back me up on that.
    “Full body” immersion means a complete dunking, head as well as body as you might witness in a fundametalist baptism “down by the river.” It might also entail sitting or kneling in a cistern and then bending forward or sitting back until water covers the entire head. There is also immersion by pouring. Sounds contraditory but it simply means the candidate stands in water, shallow or deep, and water is poured over the head and body. Immersions in Catholic Baptisms are probably mostly of this type. Infants in the Eastern Church -I believe- are submerged up to their chests and water placed or poured over the back of the head. The priest might also touch the baby’s face with a wet hand. (I don’t think I have ever witnessed an Eastern Baptism, though. I’ll have to check out YouTube).

  6. Eliza10 says:

    The point about the face under the water – its true, for some it certainly might be perceived as terrifying and/or disrsepectful. That could be a big distraction from the meaning of it. For other personalities it would be thrilling to be dunked, which could be either deeply meaningful or could distracting, depending on the person.

    Personally I like a method that is more likely work for a wider range of people. I really like the pouring over the forehead three times with a shell-ful of water. 🙂 Perhaps because its so simple. So much transforming power in such a simple ritual that takes no special architecture to recreate, no special balance of chemicals or special filtration system that must be expertly calibrated and and cleaned to maintain. But something simple, that anyone can maintain, and from this simplicity – new life! In the same way with the Eucharist – so much power, so much value, in matter so simple that was once just bread and wine.

    When I first converted, I was very interested in lovely rosaries with fine beads or stones. I admired pages upon pages of different ones on ebay, finally selecting a Mother-of-pearl one. I still like it. But I am finding favor these days with simple plastic bead rosaries that cost pennies to make and anyone can own a few – for the purse, the car, the bedside, for the other purse, the travel bag, for upstairs and for down, and you don’t think twice at handing it off to someone, as you have lots more at home or can get more easily.

  7. John says:

    Bernie, In the Greek (Byzantine) Catholic and Orthodox churches, when an infant is baptized, the priest gently pinches the baby’s nose and covers the mouth closed while immersing it 3 times. It works, has for thousands of years now. I’ve seen also, with older infants, sitting them in the font, chest high and again, holding the mouth and nose closed and with a bowl, pouring water over the head. The symbolism of dying and rising to new life is lost in dribbling a bit of water over someone.

  8. Bernie says:

    Thank you for that information. I knew that adults went through full immersion but I wasn’t sure about children -those Greeks are tough! No half-way measures with them! I’m also happy that you mentioned the importance of immersion for its ‘sign value’ which reinforces the point of this series.

  9. John says:

    Bernie–I was referring to Greek Catholics–sometimes known now as Byzantine Catholics, not ethnic Greeks. These groups include here in the USA the Ukrainian, Carpatho-Rusyn/Ruthenian, Romanian, and Melkite Catholic Churches. There are many ethnic groups whose Churches use the Byzantine rite. Obviously Orthodox and Catholics both share that heritage. While these Catholic Churches were denied their patrimony by the papal decrees “Ea Semper” (1890) and “Cum Data Fuerit” (1929) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and enforced by their bishops in an attempt to prove to the Amercian Roman hierarchy that they were truly Catholic, each now has it’s own particular law, and the mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation) and reception of the Eucharist at the time of initiation are now restored together as they were, as well as baptism by immersion instead of sprinkling or pouring which they took on in imitation of the Romans. So children of these Churches are now fully initiated from their birth and receive the Eucharist continually, obviously until they are old enough to have solids, they only receive the Precious Blood. Hope this helps further your understanding of other Churches in the Catholic communion. John

  10. Bernie says:

    Thanks John! Your comment is helpful.

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