Benedict XVI on the “What” and “Why” of Baptism

“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.

I.

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, and—not infrequently—crying 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 sacrament—seven 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 God—we, 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.

II.

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 creation—especially man’s body—to 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 rite—to renounce Satan and all his works—is 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 abstractions.

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 victor.”

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, emancipation—in the final analysis—from 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.”

III.

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 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.” 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 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.” 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.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 170 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

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