“This fear of death is like a constant winter.” ~ St. Augustine
Last week, in order to make the most out of the Christmas break, I went on a trip to Naples with friends from the parish where I assist on the weekends and where my close friend is the parish priest.
There were 75 of us and, as we tried to make our way to the Church of St. Gregory the Armenian, we ran into a huge crowd and became completely trapped, unable to move in any direction. A river of people, a multifaceted humanity. The different accents and dialects created a strange effect of universality. Everyone was stuck, unable to walk. There were various reactions to this problem: some pushed, some shouted, some despaired, some sought a logical solution…
Above this portion of humanity, my orange umbrella stuck out, marking me as the leader of my group. Some lost sight of me only to find me again later. Perhaps we didn’t realize it at the time but that experience was much like a story of baptism, just like the one we had heard just before entering into the baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte, the oldest Paleochristian baptistery in the West, found in the Basilica of Saint Restituta, which has been incorporated into the left side of the Cathedral of Naples.
As we entered the baptistery it felt as if we were descending into a funerary monument – a place that speaks of death and fear, the fear of losing oneself. We were surprised by the feeling of entering into something like a tomb, and yet it was an open tomb: the font in the center of the room gazed upwards towards the dome where a starry sky was painted.
This ought to have been the experience of the first catechumens that entered into that room to receive their baptism on the Easter Vigil in the 4th century. The font would have been surrounded by lamps, which would have allowed them to see the dome reflected in the water. On the dome, along with the starry sky, the initials of the name of Christ are depicted. In this way, the catechumen understood that precisely in the place where he could die, he would find Christ. The water was not like the sea that submerges us in its waves, but like that of the womb that brings us to life.
Significantly, the catechumen would enter by the Western door, that is from the place where the sun dies, but he would leave by the Eastern door, where new life rises again.
For this reason, once leaving the font, the catechumen would be dressed in white garments like the figures depicted in the mosaics above his head. Their garments are marked with the “I” of Iesus or by a backwards “L”, symbolizing the cornerstone who is Christ. Now, the baptized catechumen belonged to the Lord Jesus Christ.
He who has defeated death also makes us capable of overcoming not only eternal death, but all of the various fears of death that mark our lives. In fact, these men and women, dressed in white, hold in their hand a crown, the same crown that, in the dome, is placed by a hand above the name of Christ. This is the crown of victory that God the Father gives to the Son, and that we too receive from the Son Himself.
On the walls of the Baptistery some scenes are commemorated that would help the bishop to explain what was going to happen that night in the lives of those who would receive their baptism. The first scene represented in the mosaics was that of the women at the tomb who receive from the angel seated upon the stone the invitation to go and proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, baptism prepares us to announce the experience of salvation that we have experienced in our own lives.
The second image is that of the miraculous catch of fish: the net that catches 153 large fish, the image of the Church that gathers all without distinction. Through baptism, each and every one of us is made part of the Church. And we find ourselves brought together, despite having differences that sometimes seem irreconcilable, to form one community.
The third scene is of Jesus giving Peter the Word, the symbol of the Holy Scripture that was given to the catechumen during his or her preparation in Lent.
The final scene brought together two images: one woman appears next to six jars and to a well. That woman is both the spouse at the wedding of Cana and the Samaritan woman who had had six husbands, symbolizing infidelity. The Church into which the newly baptized Christian is about to enter is a Church both divine like the pure bride, and at the same time human, i.e. unfaithful, like the Samaritan woman. It is the mystery of the Church that lives in this tension.
In the corners of the dome there are four figures, of which only two are visibly preserved today, that represent the four evangelists: that is, the Good News that the Christian is called to announce.
But above the scenes we have described there is a circle on a golden background where birds feed on fruits. It is an image of the believer that can now nourish him or herself from the true food who is Christ. Having left the baptistery, the new Christian enters into the church where they would participate in the Eucharistic Banquet for the first time as fully integrated members of the Church.
Now it seems even more significant to me that, having left the Cathedral, before being faced with that complex and manifold throng of humanity outside St. Gregory the Armenian, we had descended into the depths of the earth in the excavations below the church of Saint Lawrence Major. Life continually re-presents us with baptismal experiences, moments in which we find ourselves in situations of death – that is, of sin, of failure, of disappointment, of discouragement. But for the baptized, Jesus had promised us that He himself, despite our history, waits for us in order to bring us into the light.
It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
The Gospel of the Lord
Featured image: The Baptism of Christ (c. 1690), Antoine Coypel, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
All photos of the ancient baptistery have been taken from the author’s personal blog, here.
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