Throwback Thursday: The Sign of Our New Life in Christ

Baptistry of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle

“Your brother will rise.” These encouraging and comforting words spoken by Our Lord to Martha, grief-stricken at the death of her brother Lazarus, are part of one of the most familiar and inspiring Gospel stories.  This story of the raising of Lazarus, which was heard last Sunday on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, prepares us to enter into the mystery of death and the promise of resurrection that is at the heart of our journey through Holy Week and the Easter Triduum.

Jesus asks Martha if she believes what he has said.  On Martha’s lips we hear her own profession of faith. “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world.”

Martha’s profession of faith is one of several in the Gospels that is a template for our own.  Every disciple of the Lord has personally to profess belief in him as Lord.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter is asked “Who do you say that I am?”  He replies, as must each of us if we are to be a disciple, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Today, as part of an extraordinary statement of Jesus that “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live…”,  there is the challenge, “Do you believe this?”  Martha’s response has to be our reply, the answer of every disciple “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe…”

The liturgy for the Fifth Sunday of Lent has focused our attention on the ultimate outcome of Jesus’ mission, ministry and Gospel and the events of his passion and death.  We are asked to renew our faith in the fulfillment of the Paschal Mystery – the resurrection, not just of Jesus but of each of us.

These are also the final days of preparation for the Elect, the catechumens who will make this same profession of faith and be baptized or confirmed and become full members of the Church and thus able to receive the Eucharist and live with a new found hope in the promise of the Resurrection. For Martha, it was the raising of her brother that was the sign of resurrection. For the Elect and for you and me, it is the baptismal font that is the sign of our new life in Christ at the Easter Vigil and all through the Easter season.

As we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC 1213).  In order to demonstrate this graphically, in many churches the font sits at the entry of the church, or sometimes at another visible place in the church.

The baptistery has always been a significant aspect of church architecture.  Some Catholic churches have baptisteries.  Today the baptismal font in many churches is a significant part of the sanctuary itself.  Over the many centuries of Church life, free-standing baptisteries were also a feature.  While the Leaning Tower of Pisa may be the most famous of the three buildings that comprise the cathedral close, the magnificent baptistery is a work of art itself.

In the baptistery at Saint John Lateran, built in 440, there is an inscription above the font that is said to be written by Pope Sixtus III and it perfectly captures the renewing power of the waters of Baptism and the saving grace of the life of a Christian.   As we make the ascent to Jerusalem and Holy Week, these words of Pope Sixtus give us hope and cause for joy:

“Here is born a people of noble race, destined for Heaven,
whom the Spirit brings forth in the waters he has made fruitful.
Mother Church conceives her offspring by the breath of God,
and bears them virginally in this water.

“Hope for the Kingdom of Heaven, you who are reborn in this font.
Eternal life does not await those who are only born once.
This is the spring of life that waters the whole world,
taking its origin from the Wounds of Christ.

“Sinner, to be purified, go down into the holy water.
It receives the unregenerate and brings him forth a new man.
If you wish to be made innocent, be cleansed in this pool,
whether you are weighed down by original sin or your own.

“There is no barrier between those who are reborn
and made one by the one font, the one Spirit, and the one faith.
Let neither the number nor the kind of their sins terrify anyone;
Once reborn in this water, they will be holy.”