SUNDAY, JANUARY 13: Today, the news from Rome will be the baptism of nearly two dozen infants in the Sistine Chapel by Pope Benedict XVI. That practice of marking the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord by publicly baptizing infants in the famous chapel began under the reign of Pope John Paul II. It’s one more sign of the evolving nature of this important and potentially confusing milestone in the life of Jesus and the history of Christianity.
Many Christians still have lingering Christmas decorations in their homes, yet the turning of the traditional Christian calendar suddenly jumps the baby Jesus through about three decades of his life. In the Catholic baptism feast today, Jesus shows up as an adult believed to be about 30 years old at the Jordan River—requesting baptism by his cousin John the Baptist.
Here is the Christian theme of this ancient celebration: In Greek, this turningpoint in the Christian calendar traditionally was called “Epiphany” or “Theophany,” terms that refer to the startling revelation that Jesus was, indeed, God. For many centuries, the celebrations of Jesus’s birth and the arrival of three kings to honor Jesus all were clustered at January 6—along with Jesus’s baptism. The cluster was called Epiphany in the West and Theophany in the East. The kings showed the world that Jesus was Divine; and in the biblical account of the Jordan River baptism, God above revealed that Jesus was Divine.
However, during the 20th century, Roman Catholic instructions from the Vatican separated the two celebrations—Epiphany and Baptism—so that the Feast of the Baptism now falls on Sunday January 13 this year. The goal, enacted through a series of Vatican changes in the rules, was to focus the faithful more fully on the baptism on a date later than January 6. John Paul II added the public baptisms in the Sistine Chapel; Benedict continues that custom.
BAPTISM OF JESUS—BY THE BOOK
According to Gospels and Christian tradition: John the Baptist was a well-known prophet who lived a life of intentional poverty along the Jordan River, calling people to baptism in the river to cleanse their sins. However, when Jesus showed up, John was not prepared for what happened: As Jesus emerged from the water, following baptism, the heavens opened and Spirit of God descended in the form of a dove. That famous image of a descending dove forms one of the most-photographed stained glass windows in the world. Shown at right, the window showing the Holy Spirit as Dove was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini to be placed above Bernini’s “Chair of St. Peter” within St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, argues that there were three reasons for Christ to be baptized: so that baptism might be sanctified; so that John would spread this good news for the world—and so that people would do likewise, preparing themselves for baptism.
DE-BAPTISM OF THE DUTCH
Citizens of the Netherlands—the world’s first nation to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001—have been up in arms over Pope Benedict XVI’s recent messages denouncing same-sex marriage. In protest, some Dutch are publicly leaving the church. (The Christian Post reported.) Reuters reports that a new website has been assisting people in attempts to “de-baptize” themselves, even though Church representatives have labeled the act as impossible.
CROSS DIVING AND HOLY WATER
In most countries, Christianity is alive and well—including Greek Orthodox communities in the United States. (ReadTheSpirit reported on a new Pew-sponsored map of world religions.)
That means Christian customs associated with various ethnic communities still draw big crowds! In Tampa Bay, Florida, the Baptism of Jesus was marked with a cross-diving event reportedly drawing crowds of 30,000. (Details are at ABC News.) In Ukraine, a cross of ice melts into a tub of water and provides holy water for the homes of the faithful; priests also visit parishioners in their homes, sprinkling holy water and wishing the dwellers a year of favor with God.