Why the font and candle are up front during Easter

Image: at the Easter Vigil, the kids and Angela did a wonderful job with the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale, using this cloth over the table as a backdrop for a puppet show.  It fit well (even color-wise) with the baptismal font.  In baptism we all go down into the water, into the deeps, and rise up to new life. 

by Pastor Bernt

Why are the font and candle up front? It’s not just the need many of us feel to rearrange furniture as part of Spring Cleaning!  It’s about the season of Easter that stretches now through Pentecost on May 20.

First, the baptismal font: one Easter tradition is “mystagogy,” or preaching on the mysteries, the sacraments (for Lutherans: baptism and communion).  In the early church, those who were baptized and had their first communions at Easter might put on white robes and come to church every day for a week to hear explanations of both sacraments.  (“What was that?! What did I just experience?”).  So even now Sunday scripture readings after Easter focus in on Christ is present giving resurrection-life to his people, in his word, the sharing of food and drink, washing in water and the Holy Spirit.   “Church” isn’t something we just are, but what God makes of us through the word, bath and meal – “the communion of saints, forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body, life everlasting.”

What’s in our field of vision at worship, what’s central, and what difference does it make? Here’s an image from ELCA churchwide chapel a few years go.

The baptismal font is brought forward to be always within view, front and center together with the table in this season of mystagogy.  When the bell rings you can face forward (an adjustment!) as we begin with a prayer of thanksgiving for baptism, when we would normally begin with confession and absolution.

Usually, the baptismal font is located near the entrance of the worship space.  This fits a common understanding that baptism is about entrance: it’s a rite of initiation into the church.  I like it as a symbol of welcome: as you walk into the church, you are met by the waters where Christ himself wants to embrace and include all people.  Lutherans, however, emphasize that besides being an initiation, baptism is the life long center of our spiritual life.  As Mark Tranvik points out in an essay I read recently,* in the medieval church you were baptized as a baby but then when you sinned you needed to move on to the next sacrament, penance.  Martin Luther challenged this, insisting that in this life we never move past baptism.  No matter what we face, God’s promises made in baptism – of forgiveness and belonging – hold firm.  Even when we do confess our sins and hear the promise of forgiveness, we think of this as a return to baptism.

In Luther’s catechism he taught that each day we are to remember our baptism and receive Easter all over again: “daily” our fallen humanity with its sin and evil is drowned and dies with Christ (Romans 6), so that “daily” a new person might come forth and “rise up to live before God.”  I think of how important water is to Californians.  The waters of the font are a symbol of renewal and life that’s ever flowing.

So what about the candle?  As we look forward, we also see the Easter candle.  We get a new one every year and light it from a fire outside at the Easter Vigil.  We then follow it in procession to the altar area, like Israel following the pillar of fire when it fled slavery in Egypt by night, each of us lighting our individual candles from it.  We hear a song known as the Exsultet which explains its meaning:

…receive, O God, our praise and thanksgiving
for the light of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ,
reflected in the burning of this candle.
We sing the glories of this pillar of fire,
the brightness of which is not diminished
even when its light is divided and borrowed.
For it is fed by the melting wax which the bees, your servants,
have made for the substance of this candle … (people love that part!)
We, therefore, pray to you, O God,
that this candle, burning to the honor of your name,
will continue to vanquish the darkness of night
and be mingled with the lights of heaven.
May Christ the Morning Star find it burning,
that Morning Star who never sets,
that Morning Star who, rising from the grave,
faithfully sheds light on the whole human race.”
The Easter (Paschal) Candle is lit and and on display, clearly visible all during the season of Easter (as well as baptisms and funerals) to remind us that Christ’s presence in word, meal and bath is as lively as a flame.  God sheds resurrection light and hope on every situation we face as people making our way through this world.

*M. D. Tranvik, ‘Luther on Baptism‘, Lutheran Quarterly, 13 (1999)