You might think the week after Christmas Day is a little early to be talking about emptying the baptismal font. Actually, it’s late. I walked into a local church during the fourth week of Advent to see what they had done with their environment. You guessed it. The baptismal font was bone dry and covered with a purple cloth.
So I’m on a mission. I’m asking all my friends to pledge never to empty their baptismal fonts again. And let’s all get T-shirts that say: “Friends don’t let friends drain fonts.” Why is this such a big deal? Here are seven reasons.
1. The liturgical seasons are not historical reenactments
When otherwise-pastoral people empty the font in Lent, the argument goes something like this. Jesus went into the desert for 40 days. There is no water in the desert. So we shouldn’t have water in our churches while Jesus is in the desert. Okay, here’s the thing. Jesus isn’t in the desert. Hasn’t been in the desert for 2,000 years. Isn’t ever going back to the desert. Jesus has transcended the desert and all the deprivation and desolation the desert symbolizes. Where is Jesus present? Truly, really present? In the primary symbols of the assembly of disciples gathered for worship: bread, wine, altar, word, oil, fire, and water. Lent is not a time machine that takes us back to when Jesus was absent for 40 days. As for what might be the pastoral justification for emptying the font in Advent, I haven’t a clue. But whatever it is, it doesn’t override the necessity of having baptismal water lavishly present when the assembly gathers for worship.
2. Draining the font is bad catechesis
Everything present—or absent—in the liturgy catechizes. What water teaches us is that we are a people who have died to ourselves and risen to new life. Every time we enter a church and cross ourselves with the saving waters of baptism, we teach ourselves, our children, and our catechumens that we will never die. To remove that life-giving water says that our baptism was not everlasting and eternal. We are teaching that our salvation is seasonal and occasional.
3. There is no such thing as a “fast” from baptismal water
One of the arguments for removing the water from the font in Lent is that Lent is a season for fasting. So some say that it makes sense to fast from water. Really? Maybe in some gnositc universe. But in Christianity—or even just in the ordinary material universe—water means life. No water means death. When we fast, we don’t fast from things that are good for us. We fast from temptations, from indulgences, from all that masters us that is not God.
4. Emptying the font violates church teaching
About ten years ago, somebody got tired of dipping his fingers into a font full of sand every Lent, and so he faxed a “What up?” to the Vatican. The Congregation for Divine Worship wrote back saying, “This is what you Americans spend your time on?” Well, they didn’t say that exactly, but they did say that an empty font “is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season Lent.” A balanced understanding, they said, recognizes that, in addition to being a season of penance, Lent “is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.”
5. An empty font violates the spirit of Vatican II
Related to the issue of balance noted by the CDW, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy reminded us that Lent has a two-part character.
By recalling or preparing for baptism and by repentance, this season disposes the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery. The baptismal and penitential aspects of Lent are to be given greater prominence in both the liturgy and liturgical catechesis. Hence, more use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy. (109)
And why would we want to make more use of the baptismal features of Lent? Because we have a whole group of people (the elect) preparing for baptism—the very purpose of Lent. So instead of draining the font, we should be filling it to the brim.
6. An empty font weakens the funeral liturgy
When we celebrate a funeral, we are celebrating a life lived in baptismal grace. A powerful symbol of that baptismal life is blessing the casket with living water. It is hard to see living water in a sprinkler that an acolyte retrieves from the sacristy closet. The water for blessing the casket should come from the same place in which we baptize—even in Lent. Especially in Lent.
7. Bad practice leads to more bad practice
That’s what I experienced in my church visit during Advent. Because some parishes have been emptying the font during the lenten season, one community, at lease, decided that more is better. Let’s have a dry font for both Lent and Advent. Next we may have empty fonts on rogation days or First Fridays. So let’s just stop the shenanigans now, before things get worse.
Remember: “Friends don’t let friends drain fonts.”
See also this related article:
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Of course, there’s an exception to every rule, isn’t there? According to the CDW, it’s okay to remove the water from the font after the Holy Thursday liturgy, keep it empty during Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and fill it with new water at the Easter Vigil.
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