“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?”
Pope Benedict XVI, “Lectio Divina,” St. John Lateran, June 11, 2012.
“I was born not because I made myself man, but I was born because being human was given to me.”
Pope Benedict XVI, June 11, 2012.
Benedict XVI speaks often and at length on baptism. At first sight,
it seems a rather messy and inconvenient ceremony, all that water,
candles, oil, andnot infrequentlycrying babies. The first thing we
must know about baptism is that it is not a human invention, though it
is a human thing. It is unlikely anyone would sit down and figure out
that pouring water over the head of someone would mean anything but
normal cleansing. John the Baptist, however, was said to baptize with
water, but Christ, to whom he witnessed, baptized with water and the Holy Spirit.
In a reflective “reading” at the Basilica of St. John Lateran,
Benedict again took up the importance of baptism. Over the course of his
Pontificate, the Holy Father has given fourteen other homilies on
baptism when he himself has administered the sacramentseven on the
Sunday after the Epiphany and seven at the Easter Vigil. In Spe Salvi,
he also recalled the rite of Baptism, the part where the priest asks
the parents or the one to be baptized what he wants from the sacrament.
The answer is: “Eternal life.”
Ultimately, this eternal life is why we exist, that we may obtain it.
It is a gift to us. It is not the result of our own enterprise or of
our own nature.
Benedict begins by pointing out that baptism repeats the last
recorded words of Christ in the Gospels. The Apostles were charged with
going forth to make all nations His disciples and to baptize each one in
the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are baptized
in the name of the Trinity; we mention each Person. We are to be
“immersed” in Godwe, who are human beings.
The Pope recalls a conversation Christ had with the Sadducees. These
latter only admitted as legitimate scripture the first five books of
Moses. In them, resurrection is not mentioned, which was the Sadducees’
reason for not believing in this teaching. But Jesus responded to them
in words that reflected the books they did accept. “Did you not know
that God calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” (Matt
22:31). That is, He is the God of the living, which includes the three
figures found in these early books. In other words, Christ gave the
Sadducees enough challenge to see their own contradictions.
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have “become” the “name” of
the one God. “The living are living because they stand in the memory, in
the life of God.” Already in the Old Testament do we have intimations
of the teachings that Christ will complete. So the baptismal rite is
obedient to Christ’s last charge to the Apostles. They are to teach and
baptize. Baptism “inserts” us in the name of God. Like Abraham, Isaac,
and Jacob, we too witness to the living God; to be baptized means “to be
united with God.” The symbolism of immersion means that we are taken up
into the life of the Godhead.
Baptism means God is not “far” from us. He “exists” and is near to
us. This closeness is what we now affirm. Yet, “we do not make ourselves
Christians.” Our acceptance is essential but the faith is not of our
direct making. “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.”
Benedict emphasizes that our becoming Christian is, on our part,
largely “passive.” His analogy to birth is telling. “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 “active’ in our, in my life.” The Pope already sees here
the foretaste of our dying, of the Cross as included in the being born
into the reality of this world.
But if we are immersed in God, we are also united to others who are
baptized in the name of the Trinity. “Being baptized is never a solitary
act of ‘me,’ but is always necessarily a being united with the others.”
The very unity of God Himself includes the diversity of the three
Persons so that everything created in its “image” will reflect both its
uniqueness and its relation to others.
We again recall that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the
God of the living. “Baptism is the first step of the resurrection, the
entry into the indestructible life of God.” The concluding words of
Matthew thus form the grounding of what baptism is.
The rite of baptism, like most sacraments, has matter, that is,
water, and form provided by the words used in the baptism. Benedict
stresses the fact that “Christianity is not something purely spiritual,
something solely subjective, of sentiment, will, and ideas, but it is a
cosmic reality.” This is the rejection of all idealism or Gnosticism
that finds material creationespecially man’s bodyto be somehow an
impediment, something to be rejected.
Matter is “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.” We are not Gnostics who
rebel at the limitations of the fact we have bodies that are the
instruments of our spirit. If we have to eat, drink, sleep, work, and
take care of ourselves, this is what we are. The water of baptism
reminds us and teaches us that matter is not alien to us. It is really
there to be reckoned with. It too is a gift.
The Pope notes the search for God exists in all religions for a
proper way to God. Those religions can be mistaken but still reveal a
search for God. So if water is one element in baptism; the other element
is the word, our understanding of what it is we are taught to do. The
words we speak are not just “words.” They indicate what we really
believe and hold. “Baptism extends to our whole life.”
Benedict explains that the “renunciations” in the baptismal riteto
renounce Satan and all his worksis an abiding need for each of us. “The
sacrament of baptism is not the work of an hour, but a reality of our
whole life.” There are always ways of life to which we must say “no,”
and others to which we must say “yes.” This distinction is what we go
over in the baptism’s renunciations and affirmations. This is why we
ask: “Do you renounce?” and “Do you believe?” These are not
The Pope recalls that earlier formulae of baptism asked us to
renounce the “pomp” of Satan. What they had in mind at the time was the
renouncing of “the grand bloody spectacles in which cruelty becomes
entertainment.” But even more it meant the rejection of a “special way
of culture” and 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
Needless to say, Benedict has described here much of our present
culture of death to which we must say “no.” “We also know well from many
Psalms the 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.” The Pope expects us to be aware of these things about which our
baptism warns us.
“Today freedom and Christian life, the observance of the commandments
of God, move in the opposite direction. Being Christian is thought to
be a sort of slavery; freedom is emancipation from the Christian faith,
emancipationin the final analysisfrom God,” Benedict observes. “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.” This is but another version of the ancient notion
that God has no care of His creation, especially of His human creation.
It is a denial of the very essence of Christianity that providence
includes each of us, so great we are.
Our main concern is not doing anything against God’s love for in this
power of rejection consists our freedom. God made Himself vulnerable by
becoming man. If we emancipate ourselves from God the result is always
to become a “slave to many dictatorships of time.”
The baptismal rite continues with the affirmation of the Creed in
dialogue form. That is, it asks each person, “Do you believe this about
each statement of God’s being?” The faith is not just something of the
“intellect,” though it is that too. “The truth of Christ can be
understood only if one has understood his way.”
The water in baptism recalls the history of water in Scripture. It
symbolizes both death and life “This is part of the symbolism of water:
it symbolizesabove 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.” But as the font, from whence water flows,
water becomes witness to new life
Benedict also has a comment on the baptism of infants. The objection
is made that we “impose” a belief on the hapless child. Such a view
does not see faith as itself a “new life” or as a “true” life, but just
one possible choice. Yet, “life is given to us without our being able to
choose whether we want to live or not.” Life is simply given to us. It
is ours by way of gift, not right. We can give life and baptism if we
affirm that life itself is “good.” “Only the anticipation of meaning
justifies the anticipation of life.” It is not, after all, a chaos. It
anticipates our “yes” to God’s gift.
“The Baptism of children is not contrary to freedom. It is really
necessary to give this rite in order to justify as well the gifthighly
debatableof 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.” Baptism is the opportunity to
affirm and live this gift of life and eternal life. When we begin to see
the “what” and “why” of baptism, of its relation to eternal life, our
eternal life, we see why Benedict takes such care to explain this
sacrament of initiation to us.