Episco-Fact #140
May 16, 2019

Francisco-fact: Why is the Baptismal font in the middle of the aisle and why is the Paschal candle there too?

As noted in an article last summer, the baptismal font at St. Francis once had a permanent home. That home was in front of the window which overlooks the garden on the D.C. side of the sanctuary. A case was made last summer to return it there and another case was made to locate in place of lectern on the Leesburg side of the sanctuary (the lectern from which we are not currently reading or preaching). Neither choice was made, so the font remains without a permanent home, an interesting theological choice.

The reason the font is out where we can trip over it is because Easter is a season with strong connections to baptism. And to remind the community of St. Francis of the centrality of baptism is a choice of the rector, a choice supported by tradition, and a reminder of the call to make room for new members and the call to go find them.

The connection of the Easter season to baptism is signaled by the calendar and tradition. This tradition is marked on the calendar by the beginning and ending of the season: The Great Vigil of Easter and the Feast of Pentecost, both significant baptismal dates in the liturgical year. The service for the Vigil used in the Prayer Book comes from a liturgy recorded in a book from the second century called the Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus. That makes it one of the oldest known liturgies in the church and, even in Hippolytus' time, it was a service all about Baptism, which was done once a year in his community after preparing the candidates for three years. Since the newly baptized saw and received communion for the first time at this service, the next 50 days, which takes them up to the next great feast, were used to educate and form them in a Eucharistic tradition.

Pentecost, our other traditional calendar marker for this season, is the second of the great baptismal days in the church. It was held that the events recorded in Acts meant that this was the day the Church was born. Therefore, other than Easter, what better day to initiate new members. It was to have special meaning in England because in this period of full emersion baptism in lakes, rivers, and streams, the dating of Easter in early spring meant that water was cold. The Christians of the British Isles took to using Pentecost as their principal baptismal date due to warmer conditions. That is why for Episcopalians, and other Anglicans we call it Whitsunday even though the liturgical color is red. Baptismal initiates wore white.

Finally, on the Paschal Candle. Candles can and do hold symbolic meaning. The Paschal candle is one of these. But candles are used to light things. The altar candles give light to the altar table. Paschal candles are used to light the Baptismal Font. Since the Altar Table is already lit, there is no need to have a free-floating candle standing symbolically only near it. Therefore, it stands where it is most appropriately associated-with the font. All the challenges of will be mitigated when these items are removed after Pentecost.