An annual tradition on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is the baptism of the children by the Pope in the Sistine Chapel. Today, Benedict baptized 20 children. This is the same place where the cardinals meet under lock and key to elect a new pontiff. Here is the pope’s teaching.
The joy arising from the celebration of Christmas finds its completion today in the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. To this joy is added another reason for those of us who are gathered here: in the Sacrament of Baptism that will soon be administered to these infants, the living and active presence of the Holy Spirit is manifested, enriching the Church with new children, enlivening and making them grow, and we cannot help but rejoice. I wish to extend a special greeting to you, dear parents and godparents, who today bear witness to your faith by requesting Baptism for these children, because they are regenerated to new life in Christ and become part of the community of believers.
The Gospel account of Jesus’ baptism, which we have heard today according to St Luke’s account, shows the path of abasement and humility that the Son of God freely chose in order to adhere to the plan of the Father, to be obedient to His loving will for mankind in all things, even to the sacrifice on the Cross. Having reached adulthood, Jesus begins His public ministry by going to the River Jordan to receive from John the baptism of repentance and conversion. What happens may appear paradoxical to our eyes. Does Jesus need repentance and conversion? Of course not. Yet He Who is without sin is placed among the sinners to be baptized, to fulfil this act of repentance; the Holy One of God joins those who recognize in themselves the need for forgiveness and ask God for the gift of conversion – that is, the grace to turn to Him with their whole heart, to be totally His. Jesus wills to put Himself on the side of sinners, by being in solidarity with them, expressing the nearness of God. Jesus shows solidarity with us, with our effort to convert, to leave behind our selfishness, to detach ourselves from our sins, saying to us that if we accept Him into our lives, He is able to raise us up and lead us the heights of God the Father. And this solidarity of Jesus is not, so to speak, a mere exercise of the mind and will. Jesus was really immersed in our human condition; He lived it to the utmost – although without sin – and in such a way that He understands weakness and fragility. Therefore He is moved to compassion; He chooses to “suffer with” men, to be penitent together with us. This is the work of God that Jesus wishes to accomplish: the divine mission to heal those who are wounded and to cure those who are sick, to take upon Himself the sin of the world.
What happens at the moment when Jesus was baptized by John? In the face of this humble act of love on the part of the Son of God, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit is visibly manifested in the form of a dove, while a voice from on high expresses the pleasure of the Father, Who recognizes the Only-begotten Son, the Beloved. It is a true manifestation of the Holy Trinity, which gives testimony to the divinity of Jesus, to His being the promised Messiah, the One whom God has sent to free His people, so that His people might be saved (cf. Is 40, 2). Thus is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard in the first reading: the Lord God comes with power to destroy the works of sin and His arm exercises dominion to disarm the Evil one; but keep in mind that this arm is the arm extended on the Cross, and the power of Christ is the power of the One who suffers for us: this is the power of God, differing from the power of the world. Thus God comes in power to destroy sin. Jesus truly acts as the good shepherd, that feeds His flock and gathers it together so that it will not be scattered (cf. Is 40, 10-11), and offers His own life that it might live. It is through His redemptive death that man is freed from the dominion of sin and reconciled with the Father; and through His resurrection that man is saved from eternal death and is made victorious over the Evil one.
Dear brothers and sisters, what happens in Baptism, which will soon be administered to your children? What happens is this: they will be united in a profound way and forever with Jesus, immersed in the mystery of His power, that is, in the mystery of His death, which is the source of life, in order to share in His resurrection, to be reborn to new life. See the miracle that is repeated today for your children: receiving baptism, they are reborn as children of God, partakers of the filial relationship that Jesus has with the Father, able to turn to God and call upon Him with full trust and confidence: “Abba, Father!” On your children, too, the heavens are opened, and God says: “these are my children, with whom I am well pleased.” Inserted into this relationship and freed from original sin, they become living members of the unique body which is the Church, and are enabled to live fully their vocation to holiness, so as to inherit eternal life, obtained for us by the resurrection of Jesus.
Dear parents, in asking for Baptism for your children, you manifest and bear witness to your faith, to the joy of being a Christian and of belonging to the Church. It is the joy that comes from knowing you have received a great gift from God – the faith – a gift that none of us have merited, but that has been freely given and to which we have responded with our “yes.” It is the joy of recognizing ourselves as children of God, of discovering that we have been entrusted into His hands, to know that we are welcomed into a loving embrace, in the same way that a mother supports and embraces her child. This joy, that directs the path of every Christian, is based on a personal relationship with Jesus, a relationship that guides the whole of human existence. He, in fact, is the meaning of our life, the One upon Whom it is worthy to gaze, in order to be enlightened by His Truth and be able to live life to the fullest. The way of faith that begins today for these children is therefore based on a certainty, on the experience that there is nothing greater than to know Christ and to communicate friendship with Him to others; only in this friendship is the great potential of the human condition truly revealed and we can experience what is beautiful and what is free (cf. Homily at Mass for the beginning of his pontificate, April 24, 2005). Those who have this experience are not willing to give up their faith for anything in the world.
Dear godfathers and godmothers, yours is the important duty of supporting and contributing to the work of parents in education, working alongside them in the transmission of the truths of faith and in witnessing to the values of the Gospel, in raising these children in an ever deeper friendship with the Lord. May you always give them your good example, through the exercise of Christian virtues. It is not easy to demonstrate what you believe in openly and without compromise, especially in the context in which we live, in the face of a society that often considers those who live by faith in Jesus to be old-fashioned and out of date. In the wake of this mentality, there can be, even among Christians, the risk of understanding the relationship with Jesus as limiting, as something that is detrimental to personal fulfillment, “God is seen as a limitation of our freedom, a limitation that destroys man’s ability to be himself” (The Infancy of Jesus, 101). But it is not so! This view demonstrates that it has understood nothing of the relationship with God, because, proceeding along the path of faith, we understand that Jesus exercises over us the freeing action of God’s love that takes us beyond our selfishness and keeps us from being turned in on ourselves, in order to lead a full life, a life in communion with God and open to others. “‘God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God abides in him’ (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny” (Deus caritas est, 1).
The water with which these children will be signed in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit immerses them in the “fount” of life that is God Himself and that will make them His own children. And the seed of the theological virtues, infused by God – faith, hope and charity – the seed that today is placed in their hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit, must always be fed by th
e Word of God and the Sacraments, so that these virtues of the Christian can grow and reach full maturity, in order to make each one of them a true witness of the Lord. While we invoke upon these little children the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we entrust them to the protection of the Holy Virgin: May she always guard them with her maternal presence and accompany them at every moment of their lives. Amen.