Living the sacramental practices
Believing that lived experience deepens our understanding, we offer these practices for sacramental renewal. We believe that a richer, stronger baptismal practice will help us see more clearly how to be a Word and Sacrament church in a needy world. In our pastoral letter, we commend five simple disciplines to the church. For some congregations they will be familiar; for others they will be entirely new. These practices are suggestions for how to make use of ordinary things that are deep with significance. They set before us the meaning of our common life as a baptized community that is nurtured in Word and Sacrament and sent to serve the world.
- Set the font in full view of the congregation.
- Open the font and fill it with water on every Lord’s Day.
- Set cup and plate on the Lord’s Table on every Lord’s Day.
- Lead appropriate portions of weekly worship from the font and from the table.
- Increase the number of Sundays on which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.
Locate your church’s baptismal font and bring it into the space where the congregation assembles for worship. Consider placing the font in a location where it is well seen and accessible to the congregation on a weekly basis. This could mean at the front of the center aisle or at the back near the entrance into the church. Think in terms of baptismal space, which would include space for people to gather around the font and, if the church celebrates the Easter Vigil, a paschal candle.* In preparation for Sunday, spend some time during the week experimenting with different placements of the font, and imagine how each one changes the significance of baptism for the congregation every time members enter the worship space. What does the location of your font and table communicate to the congregation?
* The paschal candle is a reminder of the paschal (Passover) mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Lit with new fire at the Easter Vigil, this candle is placed near the font and kept lighted for all occasions to recall our dying and rising with Christ through baptism.
Remember that the font is the receptacle for the primary and central symbol for baptism, which is water. Let the water be present all the time — whether there is a baptism to celebrate or not. You might even remove font covers if possible. Covers used to be necessary to protect the water from being stolen for superstitious reasons. It is appropriate to start with some water in the font and to have a pitcher with which to pour additional water during worship. The pitcher might be placed on a small table, on the floor beside the font or carried in procession. The minister, an assisting elder or even a child may pour the water. It is important to help the one pouring understand the baptismal meanings evoked in this grace-filled act.
When might it be timely in the liturgy to pour the water? There are many different opportunities during worship where pouring water or engaging the font helps deepen our understanding of baptismal life. Water that can be seen and heard — as worship begins, at confession and pardon, at offering or sending — brings attention to our baptismal identity as God’s own, to our ongoing need for grace and to our calling into lives of discipleship.
Together these vessels point the congregation to the core meaning of our Eucharistic life, a life of thanksgiving for who we are in Christ. When you are not celebrating the Lord’s Supper, keep an empty paten and chalice central on the table so that these symbols may speak to us of our hunger for Christ, who feeds us at this table. Just as the font must be visible to express its meaning, so will the Lord’s Table be allowed to function as a symbol. Be sensitive to what the presence of other things on the Lord’s Table says about the meaning of the meal.
What we do and how we do it convey meaning every bit as much as what we say. Intentionally leading worship from the font helps people make theological connections that might not be so clear to them otherwise. The presence of the leader at the font invites the congregation to see and hear anew portions of the liturgy that have baptismal implications. For example, leading the Prayer of Confession and Declaration of Pardon from the font grounds our confidence in God’s forgiveness in our baptismal identity. Lifting water with hands as the words of forgiveness are spoken makes this connection even more strongly.
Imagine the increased meaning of all acts of promise making if done at the font where God’s covenant pledge to us is enacted. Reception of new members, including youth, ordination and installation, dedication, commissioning and marriage might all take place around the font. The congregation can also engage the font while receiving the Lord’s Supper. When worshipers pass by the font as they come forward to receive the bread and wine, some will look and see while others will reach into the water and remember their baptism actively.
Baptism gives the church its mission, as well as its identity. Offering the Charge and Blessing from the font (again, lifting water with hands) is a reminder that we are a sent people, baptized for service in the world. Ministry, mission, stewardship and ethics are all rooted in our being washed in grace for self-giving in the world. Leading the intercessions or extending the offering invitation from behind the Lord’s Table can help make similar connections. At this table where the hungry are fed, our prayers and our gifts for others come into focus as ways we respond to the Word and reach out to serve the world Christ loves.
At Eucharist we are fed and nourished to live the baptismal life. The Christ with whom we are joined in baptism, and whose body we are, continues to give himself to us in the meal that bears his name. As the only repeatable part of Christian initiation, the Lord’s Supper draws us more deeply into the paschal mystery of our dying and rising with Christ. Trusting the integrity of our Reformed tradition and its affirmation of Word and Sacrament as normative for each Lord’s Day, we encourage the increased frequency of the Lord’s Supper. Congregations might consider adding particular Sundays in the liturgical year or try celebrating the Lord’s Supper through an entire season, like the season of Easter.
Whether you increase the annual number of Communion Sundays by one or by several, more frequent and regular use of these means of grace strengthens the church in its baptismal identity and call. In addition to existing resources like the Presbyterian Planning Calendar, the Directory for Worship, Book of Common Worship and Holy is the Lord, the Office of Theology and Worship will be producing aids to assist congregations that desire to increase the frequency of Communion.
As you begin these sacramental practices and engage in reflection on your congregation’s patterns for celebrating baptism and the Lord’s Supper, you may find the general questions below a helpful starting place for conversation.
1. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are made up of spoken words, actions, texts and symbols.
- Describe the words, actions, texts and symbols that are present in your congregation's celebration of the sacraments.
- Make a list of the various meanings each of the sacraments has for your congregation.
- How are these meanings expressed in your celebration of the sacraments?
2. Describe how font, table and pulpit are related to each other in a typical service of worship.
- What does their physical location in the church communicate about their relationships?
- What words, actions, texts and symbols demonstrate a connection between the two sacraments? Between Word and Sacrament?
- What parts of worship, in addition to the sacraments themselves, involve the font and the table?
3. Describe the preparation your congregation offers prior to participation in the sacraments.
- What kinds of preparation for baptism does your congregation offer? For whom? When?
- What kinds of preparation for participation in the Lord’s Supper does your congregation offer? For whom? When?
- Are acts of baptismal remembrance or reaffirmation celebrated in your congregation? If so, describe them.
This final question may be useful at several points in your exploration of sacramental practice.
4. Review the sacramental practices commended in this resource.
- Which practices has your congregation already been doing?
- Which new practices has your congregation participated in?
- Compare the congregation’s previous patterns with its use of these five practices.
- What insights about the sacraments arise from your experience with these practices?
- What do you sense the Spirit of God is leading you to explore further?