Font to Table: The Deeper Meaning Behind Baptismal Fonts
In the church, a “font” is simply a receptacle to hold water to perform the rite of Holy Baptism. They have varied in size, shape, and placement within the history of the church. Since the word used in the New Testament for “Baptism” carries a range of meanings—pouring, sprinkling, immersing, dipping, and cleansing—churches of the Reformation have never made much ado about the mode of the water’s application in the rite. However, the majority of churches still use the traditional eight-sided font. The question I’d like to explore in this post is, “Why?”
The Christian concept of time is marked with our Lord’s presence as He enters our lives, time, and space through the Church’s weekly, seasonal, and yearly liturgical rhythms through His Word and Sacraments. In the Old Testament, Israel was given the command to “remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy” (Ex. 20:8). This was the “seventh day” and celebrated on Saturday as a day of rest to give thanks to God for the gift of creation and His continued sustainment of it. The Sabbath day prefigured the need for a new and eternal creation rest, which was inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Sunday morning, or the eschatological “eighth day” as the early church fathers recognized it.
Following His resurrection from the dead, the weekly observation of the first creation was rendered obsolete by the celebration of the new creation. Thus the followers of Jesus gathered on Sunday to celebrate their Lord’s resurrection victory, and the renewal of life found only in Him.
In an Easter Sermon given to the newly baptized and confirmed, St. Augustine discussed the symbolism of the eighth day, showing how Baptism fulfills the Old Testament institution of circumcision, which was done on the eighth day after birth:
This is the octave day of your new birth. Today is fulfilled in you the sign of faith that was prefigured in the Old Testament by the circumcision of the flesh on the eighth day after birth. When the Lord rose from the dead, he put off the mortality of the flesh; his risen body was still the same body, but it was no longer subject to death. By his resurrection he consecrated Sunday, or the Lord’s day. Though the third after his passion, this day is the eighth after the Sabbath, and thus also the first day of the week. And so your own hope of resurrection, though not yet realized, is sure and certain, because you have received the sacrament or sign of this reality, and have been given the pledge of the Spirit.
It is through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism that we enter into the life of Christ:
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4)
For this reason, the early church built baptismal fonts that were eight-sided to visibly teach that Baptism is the means by which we enter this new creation. In other words, through this blessed washing, we enter into a life that never ends.
St. Ambrose draws out this architectural parallel in a late fourth-century epigram:
The octagon is raised for a sacred purpose
For which the octagonal font is also worthy
For this number eight aptly signs the sacred baptistery
In which the people are raised to true health restored
By the light of the Risen Christ who unlocks the gates
Of death and raises the dead from the grave.
Many churches have retained the ancient practice of having an eight-sided font located in, or near, the entrance to the sanctuary. As parishioners walk in, they are met with the architectural reminder that they are baptized. They have not come to meet with just any random “god” or “divine being,” but the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who has made them heirs with Christ by virtue of their baptismal adoption (Gal. 3:27-29).