Sunday, January 11, 2009

People Look West

Keeping with the custom of the Popes on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord -- the end of the Christmas season -- this morning Benedict XVI baptized 13 infants at a Mass in the Sistine Chapel.

As he did last year, the pontiff performed the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the versus Dei stance, using the landmark's original stationary altar and facing the Michelangelo cruficix, his back turned to the congregation.

While the "common orientation" is often referred to as ad orientem ("to the east"), in the Sistina, all were actually facing west -- in St Peter's, true ad orientem has likewise meant facing the congregation in the nave, which the Popes did even in the years prior to the Conciliar reforms that made free-standing altars the predominant liturgical setting.

At the same time, continuity with the rite's contemporary traditions was likewise observed -- the modern baptismal font designed by Lello Scorzelli (the maker of the pastoral staffs used by the pontiffs from Paul VI until Benedict restored the time-honored 19th century ferula earlier this year) remained in use at today's liturgy.

From the homily:

Benedict XVI first of all explained the value of today's liturgical feast, which concludes the Christmas season. The entire Christmas season, he said, celebrates the coming of God as a man among us; "lowering himself to the point of the helpless powerlessness of love, he demonstrates what true greatness is, and even what it means to be God." "The feast of the baptism of Jesus," the pope added, "introduces us . . . to the daily reality of a personal relationship with him. In fact, through immersion in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus united himself with us. Baptism is, so to speak, the bridge that he built between himself and us, the road by which he makes himself accessible to us; it is the divine rainbow over our lives, the promise of God's great yes, the door of hope, and at the same time, the sign that shows us the path to travel in an active and joyful way in order to encounter him and feel ourselves loved by him."

It is thanks to the baptism of Jesus that children are baptized: "heaven," he explained, "really opened and continues to open, and we can entrust each new life that emerges into the hands of him who is more powerful than the obscure powers of evil."

The pope then highlighted the responsibilities of parents: "the child," the pope explained, "is not the property of the parents, but is entrusted by the Creator to their responsibility, freely and in a way that is always new, so that they may help him to become a free child of God. It is only if parents develop this awareness that they will be able to find the right balance between the presumption of being able to dispose of their children as if they were their private possession, shaping them on the basis of their own ideas and desires, and the libertarian attitude that is expressed in allowing them to grow in full autonomy, satisfying all of their desires and aspirations, believing this to be the right way to cultivate their personality."

Baptizing children who cannot yet give their consent "is not an act of violence, but gives them the richness of divine life in which is rooted the true freedom that is proper to the children of God; a freedom that must be educated and formed with the passing of the years, so that it may become capable of responsible personal decisions."

Baptism, Benedict XVI recalled, is the entry into a family that is "greater and more lasting, more open and numerous" than that of blood, "the family of believers," the Church, "a family that has God as its Father, and in which all recognize one another as brothers in Jesus Christ."

Returning to today's feast, the pope concluded: "with baptism, we do not immerse ourselves . . . simply in the waters of the Jordan in order to proclaim our commitment of conversion, but the redeeming blood of Christ, which purifies and saves us, is poured out upon us. It is the beloved Son of the Father, with whom he is well pleased, who restores to us the dignity and joy of calling ourselves truly 'children' of God."

PHOTO: AFP/Getty(1); Reuters(2)