It’s a simple story. But if you’ve heard theologian and teacher Marva J. Dawn retell it, you’ve probably seen people wipe away sudden tears.
She recalls worship that began with four people entering the sanctuary from the back. One carried in a large pitcher, emptied it “with a great gurgling” into the baptismal font, and said, “The waters of our identity.” The second brought in a chalice and paten (cup and plate), set them on the communion table, and announced, “The feast of our future.” The third lay a large Bible on the pulpit and proclaimed, “The book of our story.” Finally the fourth person in the procession, the liturgist, warmly invited, “People of God, welcome home!”
That basic reenactment charges ordinary water, bread, wine, and words with God’s grandeur. It kindles memories of parents and pastors who have urged baptized loved ones, “Remember who you are. Remember whose you are.”
Baptism happens once, yet takes a lifetime to complete. That’s why more congregations are talking about renewing, reaffirming, or improving baptism. They’re discovering ways to reintegrate baptism with weekly worship, rites of passage, and the life of their faith community.
Baptism is no guarantee against sinning again. However, when weekly worship models baptism as a lifelong pilgrimage, worshipers gradually live into the pattern of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ.
When Martin Luther felt discouraged or afraid, he’d often splash water on himself and declare, “But I am baptized!” John Calvin advised readers depressed by evil to “reflect that they are still on the way” to the “complete victory” that God promises in baptism.
Arlo D. Duba, a retired worship professor and hymnwriter, describes baptism as “the ‘root sacrament,’ ” basic to worship and life. “This means baptism, in all its power, must again become visible in all our worship services—not only when the sacrament of baptism is administered, but every Sunday,” he writes in Reformed Worship.
Weekly worship may reference baptism during the gathering, hymns and psalms, confession, sermon, communion, and the sending. Visuals and ritual actions (pouring water into the font or splashing water toward worshipers during the benediction) draw attention to the community’s baptismal identity.
Reciting the Apostles’ Creed together while the worship leader is at the font helps worshipers experience how baptism joins them into “the communion of saints.” A brief sentence before the offering (“We promise in baptism to let Christ’s love flows through us to bless others”) or Scripture reading (“Psalm 133 pictures what God does for us in baptism—heals, anoints, and refreshes us”) can illuminate baptismal images.
Worship leaders often focus on one baptism meaning per liturgical season. During Pentecost, they might stress how the Holy Spirit empowers believers to baptize and disciple all nations. Advent can flesh out baptism’s full eschatological promise: God will make all things new.
On Good Friday at Third Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Zeeland, Michigan, Marc Nelesen “always referred to Christ’s death as undergoing a baptism into death. Usually I’d lower the Christ light candle into the base of the baptismal font during the Christ’s death part of the liturgy. That light would be lifted out at the end of the service.
“We had an Easter vigil at the local cemetery and then processed to the sanctuary, walked past the font (moved to the sanctuary entrance), remembered baptism, and then redecorated the sanctuary in Easter white,” says Nelesen, now ministering elsewhere.
Rites of passage
Nelesen also refers to baptism and the Lord’s Supper at weddings. At funerals he gives the baptism date of the person who died. Sometimes he points to the font, table, and pulpit and says, “Right here, all the highlights of your formation in faith and community have happened.”
First Presbyterian Church in Harrison, Arkansas, does visitation and funerals at church. “On the visitation night before the funeral, we move the communion table up on the chancel and put the body where the table usually is. When visitation ends, we pray with the family and anyone else still there. We put a pall over the coffin and light a paschal candle, which stays lit all night long.
“The body lies in state all night. The candle reflection glows on the water of the font. It’s a powerful reminder of dying and rising with Christ. The next day, we end the funeral by singing the ‘Canticle of Simeon.’ The casket is rolled out during that song, and the pall is removed outside,” says pastor Chip Andrus.
At baptism a community vows to make disciples and nurture each other in faith. Leading from the font or mentioning baptism makes sense when congregations commission church school teachers or council members.
Third CRC in Zeeland, Michigan is among congregations that list baptism anniversaries in the church bulletin. Some pastors pray by name for or with listed people.
Liturgical theologian Martha Moore-Keish has a friend who used to write letters on her children’s baptismal anniversaries. “She reflected on how she’d seen God at work in their lives and what she would pray for them in the year ahead. She gathered the letters to give to her children when they got confirmed, to show the maturing of baptismal promises.
“Now that my older daughter is 12, I’ve taken to reminding her at bedtime that she is a baptized child of God. I do this lightheartedly but am aware of the peer pressures she faces. I want her to claim her identity as one who is already beloved of God, who does not need to follow the latest trend or fashion to be of value in God’s sight. I hope she hears this affirmation. She certainly enjoys repeating it back to me,” Moore-Keish says.
At Bethany CRC in Muskegon, Michigan, the font, communion table, and lectern are usually up front on a platform. “We occasionally move the furniture for a liturgical dance or visual project,” explains Gail Hall, worship committee chair. They needed more space to celebrate Lent so moved the font to the foyer from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.
A sign on the font read: “You are not your own; you have been marked out as belonging to God. You have been cleansed from your sin. You have been identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus. You belong to the multigenerational, multicultural family of God. Pause at the baptismal font. Feel free to touch it. Dip your fingers into the water, as we remember that baptism marks the beginning of a spiritual pilgrimage toward our heavenly destination."
Hall says that other than an “elderly saint” who criticized the sign as “too Catholic,” few members said much. However, as the pastor returned to baptism in several Lenten sermons, “appreciation began to grow. I was teaching an adult ed class at the same time based on a worship book by Ron Rienstra. Several chapters mention that we all enter the church ‘wet.’ ”
Thanks to the class, sermons, and temporary font location, reactions to using font water to remember baptism “grew over time from lukewarm to overwhelmingly positive,” Hall says.
Text by Joan Huyser-Honig