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Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord

From our friends at Zenit, here is an unofficial translation of the magnificent homily that the Holy Father preached this morning for the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord:

Dear brothers and sisters, 
I am happy to give you a cordial welcome, especially you parents and godparents of the 21 infants to whom, in a moment, I will have the joy of administering the sacrament of baptism. As has become tradition, this rite takes place again this year during the Holy Eucharist in which we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. This is the feast that, on the First Sunday after Epiphany, concludes the Christmas season with the manifestation of the Lord at the Jordan.

According to the story of the Evangelist Matthew (3:13-17), Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John; in fact, all of Palestine flocked to hear the preaching of this great prophet, the announcement of the advent of the Kingdom of God, and to receive baptism, that is, to submit themselves to this sign that called to conversion from sin. Although it is called “baptism,” it did not have the sacramental value of the rite that we celebrate today; as you well know, it is in fact by his death and resurrection that Jesus instituted the sacraments and brings about the birth of the Church. [The baptism] administered by John was rather a penitential act, a gesture that invited people to humility before God, for a new beginning: Plunging into the water, the penitent acknowledged having sinned, he implored God to purify him of his sins and he was sent forth to change his erroneous behavior. 

So, when the Baptist saw Jesus, in line with sinners, having come to be baptized, he is stunned; recognizing him as the Messiah, the Holy One of God, he who is without sin, John shows his confusion: He himself, the baptizer wanted to be baptized by Jesus. But Jesus tells him not to resist, to agree to carry out this act, to do what is proper to "fulfill all justice." With this expression, Jesus shows that he came into the world to do the will of him who sent him, to do everything that the Father asks him; it is in obedience to the Father that he has agreed to become man. This gesture reveals first of all who Jesus is: He is the Son of God, true God like the Father; it is he who "humbled himself" to become one of us, he who became man and agreed to humble himself to the point of death on the cross (cf. Philippians 2:7).

The baptism of Jesus, which we recall today, fits into this logic of humility: It is the gesture of one who wants to be one of us in everything and gets in line with sinners; he, who is without sin, lets himself be treated as a sinner (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21), to carry on his shoulders the burden of guilt of all humanity. He is the "servant of Yahweh" whom the prophet Isaiah spoke to us about in the first reading (cf. 42:1). His humility is determined by a desire to establish full communion with humanity, by the desire to achieve a true solidarity with man and his condition. Jesus' gesture anticipates the cross, the acceptance of death for man’s sins. This act of abasement, with which Jesus wants to conform totally to the Father's plan of love, manifests the total harmony of will and purpose that exists between persons of the Most Holy Trinity. For this act of love, the Spirit of God manifests himself as a dove and descends upon him, and in that moment a voice from above, which all hear, testifies to the love that unites Jesus to the Father for those present at the baptism. The Father openly reveals to men the profound communion uniting him to the Son: The voice that resounds from above attests that Jesus is obedient to the Father in all things and that this obedience is an expression of love that unites them. This is why the Father delights in Jesus, because he sees in the Son’s action the desire to follow his will in everything: "This is my Son, the beloved, in him I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). And this word of the Father also alludes, in anticipation, to the victory of the Resurrection. 

Dear parents, baptism, which you ask for your children today, inserts them into this reciprocal exchange of love that exists in God between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; by this gesture that I am going to perform, the love of God is poured out upon them, inundating them with his gifts. By being bathed in the water, your children are inserted into the life itself of Jesus, who died on the cross to free us from sin, and rising, conquered death. So, spiritually immersed in his death and resurrection, [these children] are freed from original sin and in them the life of grace begins, which is the very life of the risen Jesus. "He,” said St. Paul, “gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and form for himself a pure people who belong to him, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). 

Dear friends, giving us the faith, the Lord gave us that which is most precious in life, that is, the truest and most beautiful reason to live: It is by grace that we believe in God, that we have known his love by which he wants to save us and deliver us from evil. Now you, dear parents and godparents, are asking the Church to accept these children into her bosom, to give them baptism, and you make this request because of the gift of faith that you yourselves have, in turn, received. With the prophet Isaiah, every Christian can repeat: "The Lord has shaped me his servant from the womb of my mother" (cf. 49:5); thus, dear parents, your children are a precious gift of the Lord, whose heart he has reserved for himself, to be able to fill with his love. Today through the sacrament of baptism he consecrates them and calls them to follow Jesus, through the realization of their personal vocation according to the particular design of love that the Father has in mind for each of them; the goal of this earthly pilgrimage will be the full communion with him in eternal happiness. 

Receiving baptism, these children are granted an indelible spiritual seal, the "character" that marks forever their belonging to the Lord and makes them living members of his mystical body, which is the Church. While entering to be part of the People of God, for these children there starts today a path of holiness and conformity to Jesus, a reality that is placed in them as the seed of a splendid tree, which must be made to grow. Thus, understanding the magnitude of this gift from the earliest centuries, [the Church] has been concerned to give baptism to newborn children. Certainly, there will also be the need of a free and conscious adherence to this life of faith and love, and that is why it is necessary that after baptism they are educated in faith, instructed according to the wisdom of sacred Scripture and the Church's teachings, so that the seeds of faith that they receive today can grow, and they can reach full Christian maturity. The Church, who welcomes them among her children, is responsible, together with the parents and godparents, for accompanying them on this path of growth. The collaboration between the Christian community and the family is much needed in the current social context in which the institution of the family is threatened from many sides and finds itself faced with many difficulties in its mission to teach the faith. The disappearance of stable cultural references and the rapid transformation that society continually undergoes, make the educational task truly difficult. Therefore, it is necessary that parishes increasingly strive to support families, the little domestic Churches, in their work of passing on the faith. 

Dear parents, I thank the Lord with you for the gift of the baptism of these your children; in lifting up our prayer for them, we invoke the abundant gift of the Holy Spirit, who today consecrates them in the image of Christ as priest, prophet and king. Entrusting them to the maternal intercession of Mary Most Holy, we ask for them life and health so that they can grow and mature in the faith, and bear, with their lives, the fruits of holiness and love. Amen!

Watching the sacred ritual unfold before the television screen gave me a new appreciation for this most important Sacrament.  The Sacrament of Baptism is our entrance into the Christian community.  It washes away the stain of original sin and, as the Holy Father eloquently stated, imparts on our souls the indelible mark of God's grace.  With the sign of the Cross, the Holy Father claimed each child for Christ.  With the annointings, the children took on the Christological image of priest, prophet and king.  With the pouring of the water on their heads, the children were made clean and were then subsequently given the white garment to symbolize their new dignity as Christians. 

But, as the Holy Father reminded the parents, and all of us, baptism is the beginning of our earthly pilgrimage.  The parents and godparents, working in tandem with the Church, need to do their part to guide their children along the way, educating them in the Faith and giving them the resources necessary so that they can discern what God's plans  is for them.

The Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord also marks another significant event.  It is the third Epiphany of the Christmas season.  Recall that the first Epiphany occurred on December 25th with the Birth of Christ and his first revelation to Ancient Israel, in the persons of the shepherds.  The Messiah had to be first revealed to the Chosen People.  The second Epiphany came with the revelation of the Christ to the Gentiles, as represented by the Magi from the East.  This was our Epiphany.  This third Epiphany, with the now adult Christ, manifests not only Jesus as the Messiah, but, it also reveals, for the first time, the Most Holy Trinity:  the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The Father's voice is heard from the cloud proclaiming His love for His Son.  The Son rises from the waters of the Jordan, baptized and ready to begin the work prophesied by Isaiah.  The Holy Spirit descends upon the Son in the form of a dove.  While the Trinity had been alluded to in Sacred Scripture, most notably in the Annunciation, the full manifestation of the Triune God comes at the Jordan.

At the end of the Gospel accounts written by Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Holy Trinity reference returns in Jesus' command to the Apostles that they go and baptize all "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," the same Trinitarian formula that the Church has preserved to this day for the Baptism ritual.  We do not baptize in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier, as, sadly, some parishes have done in recent years.  Such a baptism is not valid because it is a defect of form.  No.  We use the same words commanded to us by no less than Jesus, Himself.

With every Baptism, we go back to that moment at the Jordan when the Most Holy Trinity was revealed.  We become beloved children of the Father, siblings of the Son who shares in our human nature and we are guided by the Holy Spirit. 

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