In 1886, President Grover Cleveland officially dedicated the Statue of Liberty in front of thousands of spectators. The creation of the statue was a joint effort between the United States and France, with the French creating the statue itself and the United States constructing the pedestal on which it stands. A small island in New York Bay, now known as Liberty Island, was selected as the location for the statue. In 1892, shortly after the erection of the Statue of Liberty, the US Federal Government opened a new immigration station on nearby Ellis Island. Between the years of 1892 and 1954, over 12 million immigrants were processed on Ellis Island before receiving permission to enter the United States.
The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, liberty, and democracy for all of us, but most especially, for those immigrants desperate to find a new life. Indeed, the oft-quoted verses of Emma Lazarus placed upon a plaque at the entrance to the pedestal of the statue, proclaims:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The Church often uses symbols to communicate the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. Nearly everything that we see, hear, smell, taste or touch in church is replete with theological significance. Among the most powerful of these symbols for the church is the baptismal font. It represents for us death to all that threatens to separate us from God and life everlasting in Christ. The waters of baptism offer true liberty, freedom in Christ, inclusion in the family of God, entrance into the Kingdom of heaven. As such, the proper placement of the baptismal font in a church is important.
At St. John in the Wilderness, the baptismal font has moved around a bit. When the present church building was erected in 1925, the font was located in the room that is now the Chapel. In some ways this made sense at the time as the important status of the font was recognized in its receiving its own room! This decision, however, to place the font in a space apart from the main worship area is theologically untenable, and the font was moved from there to the back corner of the nave. Actually, it was probably moved not for theological reasons but on account of the need for a coat room… but that is beside the point! The back corner was better than in a space apart, but still, for the font to be relegated to a back corner is an assault on the importance of the sacrament of baptism. If baptism is so important to the Christian faith, then why would one place the symbol of baptism off in a corner? More recently, the baptismal font was moved to the front of the church beneath the ambo (lectern). This is actually a pretty good place for the font in that it is very visible and gives prominence to the importance of the sacrament. It is, however, very crowded up front with the ambo, the font and the railing leading to the chancel all taking up very limited space. Further, by placing the font up front, we miss out on an opportunity to do what the Statue of Liberty does for those seeking a new home, that is, proclaim to all those who enter the church that it is through baptism in Christ that freedom and liberty and new life come.
In the next couple of weeks, the baptismal font at St. John’s will be moved once again! It will be in the same place that many, perhaps most, churches place their fonts… in a center position at the back of the church. As people enter the main doors of the church on the west end, the font will be the very first thing that they will encounter. Just as immigrants passed by the Statue of Liberty on their way to Ellis Island, all those who enter our doors will pass by the baptismal font. May all who enter the doors of St. John in the Wilderness and pass by the font know and feel that through the baptismal waters of Christ Jesus, they are loved, cherished, and given new life and liberty. May they know that here at St. John’s they have found a place to rest and be spiritually nourished. May the “tired, the poor, the wretched, homeless and tempest-tost” receive hope in Christ and strength for their life journey.