Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Heavens Open for Those Who Receive the Grace of Baptism

At the Jordan, where the People of God passed into the Promised Land, Jesus sanctifies the waters of Baptism so that they may cleanse us of our sins.

Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI
Holy Mass and Celebration of the Baptism of Children

Cappella Sistina
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 2010

Dear brothers and sisters:

On the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this year once again, I have the joy of administering the sacrament of Baptism to some newborn children whom their parents are presenting to the Church.

Welcome, dear fathers and mothers of these babies, and you, the godfathers and godmothers, who are part of this day. Let us give thanks to God that today He is calling these seven little boys and seven little girls to become His children in Christ. Let us surround them with prayer and affection, and welcome them with joy into the Christian community, which today also becomes their family.

The feast of the Baptism of Jesus continues the cycle of the Lord's manifestations, which began at Christmas with the birth of the Word Incarnate in Bethlehem, contemplated by Mary, Joseph and the shepherds in the humility of the manger; and which had an important stage at Epiphany, when the Messiah, through the Magi, manifested himself to all peoples.

Today, Jesus reveals Himself, on the banks of the Jordan, to John and to the people of Israel. It is the first occasion on which He, as a mature man, enters the public scene after having left Nazareth.

We find him in an unusual scene with John the Baptist, to whom a great number of people had been coming. In the Gospel passage that was just proclaimed to us, St. Luke observes first of all that the people were "filled with expectation" (3:15). Thus, he underscores the expectation of Israel; he sees, in those persons who had left their homes and usual tasks, the profound desire for a different world and for new words, and who seem to find an answer in the severe, demanding words -- nonetheless full of hope -- of the Precursor.

John provided a Baptism of penance, a sign that calls for conversion, for a change of life because He who will "baptize in the Holy Spirit and in fire" (3:16) was coming. Indeed, one cannot aspire to a new world while remaining immersed in selfishness and habits connected to sin. Even Jesus had left home and His usual occupations to come to the Jordan. He arrives to a crowd that is listening to the Baptist, and He falls in line like everyone else, waiting to be baptized.

John, upon seeing Him approach, senses that there is something unique in this man, that He is the mysterious Other he has been waiting for and towards whom all his life had been leading to. He understood that he was in front of someone far greater than him, of whom he was unworthy even to untie His shoes.

At the Jordan, Jesus manifests Himself with extraordinary humility, which recalls the poverty and simplicity of the Baby laying in the manger, and anticipates the sentiments with which, at the end of His earthly days, He would wash the feet of His disciples and undergo the terrible humiliation of the Cross. The Son of God, He who is without sin, places Himself among sinners, shows the closeness of God to man's path of conversion. Jesus takes on His shoulders the weight of the sins of all mankind, begins His mission by placing Himself in our place, in the place of sinners, in the perspective of the Cross.

When, after His baptism, He emerges from the water, deep in prayer, the heavens open. It is the moment that had been foreseen by ranks of prophets. "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down," Isaiah had invoked (63:19). At this moment, St. Luke seems to suggest, that prayer was to be fulfilled. "Heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove," and words were heard that had never been heard before, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (3:21-22).

Jesus, emerging from the waters, as St. Gregory Nazianzene said, "sees the heaven split and open up, the heaven that Adam had closed for himself and all his descendants" (Discourse 39, On the Baptism of the Lord, PG 36).

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have come down among men to reveal their love which saves. Just as the angels came to announce to the shepherds the birth of the Savior, and the Star to the Magi from the East, now it is the voice of the Father Himself who indicates the presence of His Son in the world, and who invites to us to look towards the resurrection, to Christ's victory over sin and death. The glad news of the Gospel is the echo of this voice that comes from on high. Therefore, rightly, Paul, as we heard in the Second Reading, writes Titus: "For the grace of God has appeared, saving all" (2:11).

Indeed, the Gospel is, for us, a grace which gives joy and meaning to life. The apostle continues: that grace teaches us "to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age" (Titus 2:12). That is, it leads us to a life that is happier, more beautiful, more fraternal -- to a life in accordance with God.

We can say that even for these babies today, the heavens open. They will receive the grace of Baptism, and the Holy Spirit will dwell in them as in a temple, transforming their hearts profoundly.

From this moment, the voice of the Father will call on them, too, to be His children in Christ and in His family, which is the Church, He will give each one the sublime gift of faith. This gift, which they are not able to understand now, will be deposited in their hearts like a seed full of life, which awaits to germinate and bear fruit.

Today, they are baptized in the faith of the Church, professed by their parents and godparents, and by all the Christians present, who will then lead them by the hand in the footsteps of Christ. The rite of Baptism insistently points to the subject of faith from the start, when the celebrant reminds the parents that, in asking Baptism for their children, they take on the task of "educating them in the faith." This task is recalled even more strongly to the parents and godparents in the third part of the celebration, which begins with words addressed to them:

"Yours is the task to educate them in the faith so that the divine life that they receive as a gift may be preserved from sin and grow from day to day. Therefore, if by virtue of your faith, you are ready to take this task upon yourselves . . . make your profession in Christ Jesus. It is the faith of the Church in which your children have been baptized."

These ritual words suggest that, in some way, the profession of faith and renunciation of sin by the parents and godparents, represent the necessary premise for the Church to confer Baptism on their children.

Immediately before pouring water on the head of the newborn, there is another call to faith. The celebrant poses the last question: "Do you want your child to receive Baptism in the faith of the Church that we, all together, have professed?" Only after their affirmative answer is the Sacrament administered.

Even in the explicative rites -- anointing with chrism, receiving the white garments and lighted candle, the gesture of "Ephphatha!" (Open up!) -- faith is the central theme:

"Take good care," says the rite of receiving the candle, "that your children . . . may always live as children of the light, and, persevering in the faith, they may go forth to meet the Lord who comes." "May the Lord Jesus," affirms the celebrant in the rite of Ephphatha, "grant that you may soon hear His Word, and profess your faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father." Everything is crowned by the final blessing which once again reminds the parents of their task to be, for their children, "the first witnesses to the faith."

Dear friends, today is a great day for these babies. With Baptism, having become participants in the death and resurrection of Christ, they begin with Him the joyous and exalting adventure of the disciple.

In fact, by giving to each one a candle lit from the Paschal candle, the Church says, "Receive the light of Christ!" Baptism illuminates with the light of Christ, opens the eyes to his splendor, and introduces the mystery of God through the divine light of faith. It is in this Light that the babies who are to be baptized today should walk all their life, helped along by the word and example of their parents and godparents. The latter must nourish, with the words and testimony of their own life, the torch of faith in their children, so that it may shine forth in our world -- which too often gropes about, in the shadows of doubt -- and carry the light of the Gospel which is life and hope.

Only that way, when they grow up, will they be able to say with full awareness the words said at the end of the profession of faith in the baptismal rite: "This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. And we glory in professing it, in Jesus Christ our Lord."

Even in our time, the faith is a gift to be rediscovered, to cultivate and to bear witness to. With this celebration of Baptism, may the Lord grant each of us to live the beauty and joy of being Christian, so that we may introduce the baptized children to the fullness of adherence to Christ.

Let us entrust these little ones to the maternal intercession of the Virgin Mary. Let us ask her that, in the white garments that signify their new dignity as children of God, they may be, all their life, faithful disciples of Christ and courageous witnesses to the Gospel. Amen!


(see also Pope Benedict's Address at the site of the Baptism of Jesus during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land last year)

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