Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Celebrating this feast, which is effectively the first Sunday in Ordinary Time, we have an opportunity to celebrate, in a sense, our own baptism, not as a single celebration locked in a past moment of history, but as a dynamic reality shaping our Christian witness, vocation and action.  It is as a good a chance as any to reclaim and profess once more faith in Christ’s saving power.  Today we wish to offer for your own mediation and consideration two wonderful texts.  The first is the text used in the baptismal liturgy of the universal Church, at that key point just before the celebration of the sacrament itself, by use of the Trinitarian formula and the pouring on of water: the parents and godparents, asked to recognise their own faith and practice as the seedbed for the reception of baptism by the child, renounce sin and profess their faith, a double action of turning away from sin, and the architect of sin, and turning towards the source and summit of life, the Triune God and salvation preached by the Church.  The second text is a catechesis given by Pope Benedict XVI which leads us into the consideration of the mystery of baptism but its profound effect of immersing us in God, and immersing us in one another and thereby the community of believers, Christ’s Body, the Church.

The Rite of Baptism: The Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith

Dear parents and godparents: You have come here to present this child for baptism. By water and the Holy Spirit he (she) is to receive the gift of new life from God, who is love.

On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring him (her) up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives him (her) is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in his (her) heart.

If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptism. Reject sin; profess your faith in Christ Jesus. This is the faith of the Church. This is the faith in which this child is about to be baptized.

94. The celebrant questions the parents and godparents:

Celebrant: Do you reject Satan?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

Celebrant: And all his works?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

Celebrant: And all his empty promises?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

95. Next the celebrant asks for the threefold profession of faith from the parents and godparents:

Celebrant: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

Celebrant: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, 

his only Son, our Lord,

who was born of the Virgin Mary,

was crucified, died, and was buried,

rose from the dead,

and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

Celebrant: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting?

Parents and Godparents: I do.

The celebrant and the congregation give their assent to this profession of faith:

Celebrant: This is our faith.

This is the faith of the Church.

We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All: Amen.

Pope Benedict XVI – Basilica of St John Lateran (June 2012)

Dear brothers and sisters, […] the Lord’s last words to his disciples on this earth were:

“Go, make disciples of all peoples, and baptize them in the name of the Father, of the Son, of the Holy Spirit”

(cf. Mt 28:19).

Make disciples and baptize. Why isn’t it sufficient for discipleship to know the teachings of Jesus, to know the Christian values? Why is it necessary to be baptized? This is the theme of our reflection, in order to understand the reality, the profundity of the sacrament of Baptism.

A first door is opened if we read attentively these words of the Lord. The choice of the expression “in the name of the Father” in the Greek text is very important: the Lord says “eis” and not “en,” and so not “in the name” of the Trinity like we say that a vice-prefect speaks “in the name” of the prefect, an ambassador speaks “in the name” of the government. No. He says “eis to onoma,” meaning an immersion into the name of the Trinity, a being inserted into the name of the Trinity, an interpenetration of the being of God and our being, a being immersed in God the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as in marriage, for example, two persons become one flesh, become one single new reality, with a single new name.

The Lord helped us to understand this reality even better in his conversation with the Sadducees concerning the resurrection. Of the canon of the Old Testament, the Sadducees recognized only the five books of Moses, and the resurrection does not appear in these, so they denied it. Precisely on the basis of these five books, the Lord demonstrates the reality of the resurrection and says:

Do you not know that God calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

(cf. Mt 22:31-32).

Thus, God takes these three and precisely in his name they become “the” name of God. In order to understand who this God is, one must see these persons who have become the name of God, a name of God, are immersed in God. And thus we see that the one who stands in the name of God, is immersed in God, is alive, because God – says the Lord – is not a God of the dead, but of the living, and if he is God of these, he is God of the living. The living are living because they stand in the memory, in the life of God.

And this is precisely what happens in our being baptized: we become inserted into the name of God, so that we belong to this name and his name becomes our name and we too are able, with our testimony – like the three of the Old Testament – to be witnesses of God, a sign of who this God is, name of this God.

Therefore, being baptized means being united with God. In a single new existence we belong to God, we are immersed in God himself.

Thinking of this, we can immediately see a few consequences.

The first is that God is no longer very distant from us, he is not a reality to be discussed – whether he exists or not – but we are in God and God is in us. The priority, the centrality of God in our lives is a primary consequence of Baptism.

To the question: “Does God exist?” the answer is: “He exists and he is with us; this closeness to God matters in our lives, this being in God himself, who is not a distant star, but is the environment of my life.” This would be the first consequence, and therefore would tell us that we ourselves must take into account this presence of God, really live in his presence.

A second consequence of what I have said is that we do not make ourselves Christians. Becoming Christian is not something that follows from a decision of mine: “Now I am making myself Christian.” Of course, my decision is also necessary, but above all it is an action of God with me: it is not I who make myself Christian, I am taken up by God, taken in hand by God and in this way, saying “yes” to this action of God, I become Christian.

Becoming Christian is, in a certain sense, “passive”: I do not make myself Christian, but God makes me a man of his, God takes me in hand and realizes my life in a new dimension. Just as I do not make myself live, but life is given to me; I was born not because I made myself man, but I was born because being human was given to me. So also being Christian is given to me, it is a “passive” for me that becomes an “active” in our, in my life. And this fact of the “passive,” of not making oneself Christian but of being made Christian by God, already somewhat implies the mystery of the cross: it is only by dying to my egoism, departing from myself, that I can be Christian.

A third element that is immediately opened in this perspective is that, naturally, being immersed in God I am united with all others, I am united with my brothers and sisters, because all the others are in God and if I am drawn out of my isolation, if I am immersed in God, I am immersed in communion with others.

Being baptized is never a solitary act of “me,” but is always necessarily a being united with all the others, a being in unity and solidarity with the whole body of Christ, with the whole community of his brothers and sisters. This fact that Baptism inserts me into community breaks my isolation. We must remain aware of this in our being Christian.

And finally we return to the statement of Christ to the Sadducees: “God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (cf. Mt 22:32), and therefore they are not dead; if they are of God, they are alive. This means that with Baptism, with immersion in the name of God, we too are already immersed in immortal life, we are alive forever.

In other words, Baptism is a first stage of the resurrection: immersed in God, we are already immersed in the indestructible life, the resurrection begins. Just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, being “name of God,” are alive, so also we, inserted into the name of God, are alive in the immortal life. Baptism is the first step of the resurrection, the entry into the indestructible life of God.

Thus in a first stage, with the baptismal formula of Saint Matthew, with the last words of Christ, we have already seen a bit of the essential of Baptism.

Now let us look at the sacramental rite, in order to understand even more precisely what Baptism is.

This rite, like the rite of almost all the sacraments, is composed of two elements: matter – water – and words.

This is very important. Christianity is not something purely spiritual, something solely subjective, of sentiment, will, and ideas, but is a cosmic reality. God is the Creator of all matter, matter enters into Christianity, and only in this grand context of matter and spirit together are we Christian. It is therefore very important that matter be part of our faith, that the body be part of our faith. The faith is not purely spiritual, but in this way God inserts us into the whole reality of the cosmos and transforms the cosmos, draws it to himself.

And with this material element – water – enters not only a fundamental element of the cosmos, a fundamental material created by God, but also all of the symbolism of the religions, because in all of the religions water has something to say. The journey of the religions, this search for God in different ways – which can be mistaken, but still a search for God – is incorporated into the sacrament. The other religions, with their journey toward God, are present, are incorporated, and this accomplishes the synthesis of the world. The whole search for God that is expressed in the symbols of the religions, and above all – naturally – the symbolism of the Old Testament, which thus, with all of its experiences of salvation and of God’s goodness, becomes present. We will return to this point.

The other element is the word, and this word presents itself in three elements: renunciations, promises, invocations.

It is therefore important that these words not be only words, but be a way of life. In these are realized a decision, in these words is present our whole baptismal journey, both pre-baptismal and post-baptismal. Therefore, with these words, and also with the symbols, Baptism extends itself to our whole life.

This reality of the promises, of the renunciations, of the invocations is a reality that lasts our whole lives, because we are always on the baptismal journey, on the catechumenal journey, through these words and the realization of these words. The sacrament of Baptism is not an act of an hour, but is a reality of our whole life, it is a journey of our whole life. In reality, behind this is also the doctrine of the two ways, which was fundamental in early Christianity: a way to which we say “no” and a way to which we say “yes.”

Let’s begin with the first part, the renunciations. There are three, and I will take the second one first: “Do you renounce the seduction of evil so as not to allow yourself to be dominated by sin?”

What are these seductions of evil? In the ancient Church, and for centuries afterward, there was this expression: “Do you renounce the pomp of the devil?” and today we know what was meant by this expression “pomp of the devil.” The pomp of the devil was above all the grand bloody spectacles in which cruelty becomes entertainment, in which killing men becomes a spectacular thing: spectacle, the life and death of a man. These bloody spectacles, this enjoyment of evil is the “pomp of the devil,” where it appears with apparent beauty and, in reality, appears with all its cruelty.

But beyond this immediate meaning of the term “pomp of the devil,” there was an intention to speak of a type of culture, of a way of life in which what counts is not the truth but the appearance, what is sought is not the truth but the effect, the sensation, and under the pretext of truth, in reality, men are destroyed, the intention is to destroy and create only oneself as victor.

Therefore, this renunciation was very real, it was the renunciation of a type of culture that is an anti-culture, against Christ and against God. One was deciding against a culture that, in the Gospel of Saint John, is called “kosmos houtos,” “this world.” With “this world,” naturally, John and Jesus are not speaking of God’s creation, of man as such, but they are speaking of a certain creature that is dominant and imposes itself as if it were this world, and as if this were the way of living that is imposed.

I will now leave it to each one of you to reflect on this “pomp of the devil,” on this culture to which we say “no.” Being baptized means precisely a substantial emancipation, a liberation from this culture. Today as well we know a type of culture in which the truth does count. Even if there is the apparent desire to make all truth appear, the only thing that counts is the sensation and the spirit of calumny and destruction. A culture that does not seek the good, the moralism of which is in reality a mask to confuse, to create confusion and destruction. Against this culture, in which lying presents itself in the guise of truth and of information, against this culture that seeks only material prosperity and denies God, we say “no.” We also know well from many Psalms this contrast of a culture in which one seems incapable of being touched by all the evils of the world, one places oneself above all, above God, while in reality it is a culture of evil, a dominion of evil.

And thus the decision of Baptism, this part of the catechumenal journey that lasts our whole lives, is precisely this “no,” spoken and realized anew each day, including with the sacrifices that come from opposing the culture that is dominant in many parts, even if it were imposed as if it were the world, this world: it is not true. And there are also many who really desire the truth.

So we move on to the first renunciation: “Do you renounce sin in order to live in the freedom of the children of God?”

Today freedom and Christian life, the observance of the commandments of God, move  in opposite directions. Being Christian is thought to be a sort of slavery; freedom is emancipation from the Christian faith, emancipation – in the final analysis – from God. The word ‘sin’ appears to many almost ridiculous, because they say: “How? We cannot offend God! God is so great, what does it matter to God if I make a little mistake? We cannot offend God, his interest is too great to be offended by us.”

It seems true, but it is not true. God has made himself vulnerable. In Christ crucified, we see that God has made himself vulnerable, has made himself vulnerable to the point of death. God cares about us because he loves us, and the love of God is vulnerability, the love of God is caring about man, the love of God means that our main concern must be that of not wounding, not destroying his love, not doing anything against his love because otherwise we live even against ourselves and against our own freedom. And in reality, this apparent freedom in emancipation from God immediately becomes slavery to the many dictatorships of time, which must be followed in order to maintained as being up to the challenge of the time.

And finally: “Do you renounce Satan?” This tells us that there is a “yes” to God and a “no” to the power of the evil one who coordinates all of these activities and wants to make himself the god of this world, as Saint John again tells us. But he is not God, he is only the adversary, and we must not subject ourselves to his power. We say “no” because we say “yes,” a fundamental “yes,” the “yes” of love and of truth.

These three renunciations, in the rite of Baptism in antiquity, were accompanied by three immersions: immersion in water as a symbol of death, of a “no” that really is the death of one type of life and resurrection to another life. We will return to this.

Then, the confession in three questions: “Do you believe in God the Father almighty, creator, in Christ, and finally, in the Holy Spirit and the Church?”

This formula, these three parts, were developed on the basis of the Lord’s words: “Baptize in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” These words are made concrete and are deepened: what Father means, what Son means – the whole faith in Christ, the whole reality of God made man – and what it means to believe in being baptized into the Holy Spirit, meaning the whole action of God in history, in the Church, in the communion of the saints.

Thus the positive formula of Baptism is also a dialogue: it is not simply a formula. Above all the confession of the faith is not only something to understand, something intellectual, something to memorize – of course, it is also this – but also touches the intellect, it touches our living, above all. And to me this seems very important. It is not something intellectual, a pure formula. It is a dialogue of God with us, an action of God with us, and a response of ours, it is a journey. The truth of Christ can be understood only if one has understood his way. Only if we accept Christ as way do we really begin to be on the way of Christ and can also understand the truth of Christ. The truth, if not lived, does not open itself; only the truth that is lived, the truth that is accepted as way of living, as journey, also opens itself as truth in all of its richness and profundity.

Therefore, this formula is a way, it is an expression of our conversion, of an action of God. And we really want to be aware of this in our whole life as well: that we are in communion on the journey with God, with Christ. And thus we are in communion with the truth: by living the truth, the truth becomes life, and by living this life we also find the truth.

Now we move to the material element: water.

It is very important to see two meanings of water. On the one hand, water reminds us of the sea, above all the Red Sea, of death in the Red Sea. In the sea is represented the power of death, the need to die in order to come to new life. To me this seems very important. Baptism is not only a ceremony, a ritual introduced some time ago, nor is it only a washing, a cosmetic operation. It is much more than a washing: it is death and life, it is the death of a certain existence and rebirth, resurrection to new life.

This is the profundity of being Christian: not only is it something that is added, but it is a new birth. After crossing the Red Sea, we are new. Thus the sea, in all of the experiences of the Old Testament, has become for Christians a symbol of the cross. Because only through death, a radical rebirth in which one dies to a certain type of life, can rebirth be realized and can there really be new life.

This is part of the symbolism of water: it symbolizes – above all in the immersions of antiquity – the Red Sea, death, the cross. Only through the cross does one come to new life, and this is realized every day. Without this ever-renewed death, we cannot renew the true vitality of the new life of Christ.

But the other symbol is that of the font. Water is the origin of all life; in addition to the symbolism of death, it also has the symbolism of new life. Every life comes in part from water, from the water that comes from Christ as the true new life that accompanies us into eternity.

In the end there remains the question – just a quick word here – of the Baptism of children. It is right to do this, or is it rather necessary to make the catechumenal journey first in order to arrive at a truly realized Baptism?

And the other question that is always raised is: “But can we impose on a child what religion he wants to live or not? Shouldn’t we leave that decision to the child?”

These questions show that we no longer see in the Christian faith the new life, the true life, but we see one choice among others, even a burden that should not be imposed without the assent of the subject.

The reality is different. Life itself is given to us without our being able to choose whether we want to live or not. No one is asked: “do you want to be born or not?” Life itself is necessarily given to us without previous consent, it is given to us in this way and we cannot decide beforehand “yes or no, I want to live or not.”

And in reality, the true question is: “Is it right to give life in this way without having received the consensus: do you want to live or not? Can one really anticipate life, give life without the subject having the possibility of deciding?” I would say: it is possible and it is right only if, together with life, we can also give the guarantee that life, with all the problems of the world, is good, that it is good to live, that there is a guarantee that this life is good, is protected by God and is a true gift.

Only the anticipation of meaning justifies the anticipation of life. And thus Baptism as guarantee of the goodness of God, as anticipation of meaning, of the “yes” of God that protects this life, also justifies the anticipation of life.

Therefore, the Baptism of children is not contrary to freedom. It is really necessary to give this in order to justify as well the gift – highly debatable – of life. Only the life that is in the hands of God, in the hands of Christ, immersed in the name of the triune God, is certainly a gift that can be given without scruples.

And so we are grateful to God who has given us this gift, who has given us himself. And our challenge is to live this gift, really to live, in a post-baptismal journey, both the renunciations and the “yes,” and to live always in the great “yes” of God, and thus to live well.

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