Echoes of Baptism can be found in the Old Testament with Hebrew purification rituals. Since then, Baptism has had a long tradition in the Church that has grown and developed for centuries.
One of the earliest Christian texts discussing Baptism is the Didache (or Doctrine) of the Twelve Apostles. Amazingly, this text was "just" discovered in 1883 by Bryennois, a Greek Orthodox Metropolitan. It was written during the first or second century, and it is somewhat of a manual for how the sacraments were to be administered. One commonality still in use today is including the words "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" as Jesus commanded in the Gospels. However, two millennia ago, a person had to fast for a few days before being baptized, and the preparation to receive the sacrament could take years from the time an individual first had a desire to become a member of the Church. This makes the RCIA process seem short in comparison!
Where Baptisms took place has also evolved. In the early church, most Baptisms were done by full immersion wherever a large of body of water could be found (like a lake, river or pond), but they could also take place by sprinkling water on a person's head. Baptism by full immersion has powerful symbolism. Entering the water would be much like Christ went into the tomb after He died on Good Friday. Arising from the water, the baptized would be a new creation, just like Jesus was at the Resurrection.
When persecutions in Rome intensified, baptistries developed in the catacombs so that Baptisms could be done in secret. The baptistries could be as large as four and half feet long, three and a half feet wide, and three and a half feet deep! When Christianity was legalized under Constantine, large Churches were being built and the baptistries were placed in structures next to the Churches. (If you have ever been to Florence, Italy, you are sure to remember the external baptistry of the
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, dedicated to St. John the Baptist.)
Eventually, baptismal fonts were placed inside in the main church where we most often see them today.
Baptism is one of the biggest events in a Christian's life and has evolved quite a bit since the first days of Christianity. With the Feast of Jesus' Baptism coming up on Monday, it may be good for us to think about how we have evolved in our own relationships with God since we were baptized. Perhaps by doing that, we can go into the tomb with Christ to rise with Him again into new life.