Freedom, Identity, Belonging

Although middle school students themselves often do not realize it, questions of belonging, identity, and freedom are at the heart of what piques their interest and grabs their attention, at the heart of what is existential to them. Again most of them do not realize it, but the opinion of their peers and the opinion of the community to which they belong is of tantamount importance to them. Thus, when you are striving to teach middle school students about Baptism, trying to enable them to enter more deeply into the meaning of the symbols of the sacrament of Baptism, choosing the symbols to present ought to be motivated by these questions. Simultaneously, it is extremely helpful for them to encounter tangible symbols: those which are physical, present, able to be encountered. One should always choose the concrete and physical over powerpoint slides on a screen. Therefore, I will be using some of the artwork and symbols associated with Baptism which are present within the Church attached to the school where I teach, St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Farragut, TN. Through three symbols or signs of Baptism present in the Church (the Red Sea, the White Garment, and the inscriptions on the Baptismal Font) which are associated with freedom, identity, and belonging, I hope to illustrate how encounters with these symbols could help students enter more deeply into the significance of Baptism.

It would be best to begin by simply walking the students through the Baptismal Rite to familiarize them with what actually happens. I would then ask the Church to set out the materials necessary for a standard Baptism, and then invite my students to walk throughout the Church, looking not only at what is laid out, but also look at the entire Church for anything which connects to Baptism.

Now, there are multitudinous clear connections to Baptism. The inscription around the dome is of the Great Commission from Matthew’s Gospel, in addition to the baptismal font both at the rear of the Church and at the front. The oils and Easter candle are present at the front, and I am sure that examining the materials which would be laid out for a Baptism would be fascinating to my students. Perhaps the one which would jump out to them most prominently, however, is the stained glass window dedicated to Baptism.

In this image, we see most prominently the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Beneath that, in the right bottom panel, there is a depiction of the Apostles baptizing after the Resurrection (possibly on the day of Pentecost), and in the left bottom panel, there is a depiction of the crossing of the Red Sea. If the invitation to consider the Baptismal elements in the Church is presented well enough, the students might begin to consider, to ask, why the Crossing of the Red Sea is included in this set of three images. How do these line up together? How do they build on each other? Reading either the story of the Red Sea again or the Canticle of the Sea could be a helpful resource to offer the students as they encounter this image to bring them to the idea of freedom, of God as bringing us to true freedom, which then factors back into their understanding of Baptism. Tertullian writes, as quoted by Robin Jensen:

The first [testimony to the use of water as a means of grace] was when the people were liberated from Egypt and, by passing through the water, escaped the Egyptian king’s power, the king himself with all his forces, having been destroyed by water. How is this figure manifest in the sacrament of baptism? Plainly that, in this age, the gentiles are (also) liberated through water and forsake their original oppressor, the devil, who is drowned in that water. (20)

It is difficult to hold one self back from verbal explanation of every minute detail and facet, but by offering the stained glass window as a location of contemplation, the Crossing of the Red Sea as a type of Baptism and a correlating image of freedom might enter more deeply into their understanding.

If Baptism is about freedom, then, what are we free for? Several striking symbols would be present in the materials laid out as if in preparation for a Baptism: the candle (as well as the Easter candle), the oil, and the white garment. The clothing with the white garment is an especially unique aspect of Baptism. While we do get dressed up for the majority of the sacraments we receive, receiving an article of clothing as part of the rite is quite unique (excepting Holy Orders). At some parishes it looks like a tiny stole, at some it looks something like an apron. Asking the students to spend some time silently considering the white garment, particularly after considering the stained glass window including the Red Sea, inviting them to ask: what might the total newness and spotlessness of the garment represent? The freedom given by God has caused a change in identity. Augustine, “sees the robes as signifying innocence and compares their color to the brightness of the neophytes’ cleansed souls” (172). Again, it is difficult to resist the temptation to explain each thing in detail, and it would be necessary to discuss what they encountered after the time spent in the Church, but at least moving them to the consideration of the tangible symbols is crucial — perhaps moving them to a sense of how new identity is given in Baptism.

Turning then to the baptismal font of St. John Neumann, a feature the students would surely examine when looking at items connected to Baptism in the Church, you see quite clearly engraved on the sides of the font the famous lines from St. Irenaeus: “Life of Man is the vision of God” and “Life in Man is the Glory of God.” Connecting to the idea of identity, here it is clear that life for man stems from God. And where does it begin? At the baptismal font, in the sacrament of Baptism, with this freedom and newly received identity. (As a side note, this corresponds quite powerfully with the verse inscribed above the main doors to the Church: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” [John 10:10].)

Baptismal Font at the Rear of Church

It is crucial that this inscription lies on the Baptismal font, the baptismal font to which all nations are invited, which is precisely for every person. In entering the waters of Baptism, you emerge as a member of the Body of Christ — no longer an isolated monad, but part of the community.

As a way of emphasizing this communal element, the idea of Baptism as the entrance into membership in the Church, I would share with my students the Dome mosaic of the Arian baptistry from Ravenna as part of the discussion in class following the period of reflection on the artwork and symbols in the Church.

Dome mosaic, Orthodox baptistry, Ravenna. Source:

The twelve apostles are clothed in white garments, surrounding an image of Jesus’s Baptism in the Jordan. The most prominent feature, I think, is the crowns they hold in their hands, seeming the indicate the future reward which waits for those who enter the baptismal waters and are faithful unto death, hearkening to the words of Revelation: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life“ (Revelation 2:10). The baptized person is joined to this communion — robed in white, he or she is destined for the crown of glory, for the full life promised by God.

Each of these aspects of Baptism we have covered here only come to their fullness in Heaven: freedom, identity, and communion. At the Red Sea, the Israelites entered the waters slaves and emerged free to enter into the covenant with God at Sinai — it is in Heaven that our freedom will be whole and eternal. As the baptized are clothed with a white garment, symbolizing their freedom from sin and new identity in Christ, in Heaven each person will be most fully themselves, most fully alive in Christ. Finally, as in Baptism we enter into a new life of communion with the Church, it is in Heaven that we will receive the crown of glory and live in perfect communion. By contemplation of these images and symbols in the Church, which is the Church many of my students were themselves baptized in, I would hope that they might come to a deeper and more fruitful understanding of the significance of Baptism.