This is the third of this year's Chartres meditations.
I realised I dived into these with little explanation. I should have told you that the pattern for the meditations each day is:
first, a meditation on the saints under whose patronage we march each day (this changes every day, and is different each year); this year we marched under the patronage of Sts Athanasius and Hilary on day one, Sts Louis and Catherine of Siena on day two, and Saints Thomas and Mary Magdalen on day three;
then, a series of meditations on the theme of the year. This also changes every year, and this year was Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World.
(I should perhaps confess that this is a theoretical pattern. We don't always get through all of the allocated meditations in a day, so the dedicatory one often crops up second or third on the second and third days, and the final meditations are sometimes not heard at all...)
And the Word lived amongst us.
If the Word of God, that is the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the eternal Son of God, was incarnate in order to become what the Bible calls the Son of Man, having taken His flesh from the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was also so that He could become an example of perfection for us to follow. All the saints took Christ as their model, and in that way, they have become for us examples of a life united to Christ – and therefore, a successful life. Nonetheless the one supreme and ultimate example to follow is Christ Himself.
1 The baptism: a humiliation for Our Lord Jesus Christ
Therefore, let us contemplate Christ being baptised in the River Jordan. That is, the river called in Hebrew נהר הירדן, Nehar haYarden, which means the river of Sorrow, or even, the river of Judgment. The fact is that Jesus Christ became man to take our sins upon Himself, and He went down into the river of pain and judgement in our place, as the prophet Isaiah said : (53 : 4& 5) Truly, ours were the sorrows He bore, etc….
By his baptism, Christ was already announcing that He had come to redeem that humanity which He had freely assumed when He became man. St Gregory of Nazieance tells us that Christ was baptised so as to submerge and destroy the entire old man, so that the condemned humanity He had come to save could be washed clean of its sins. Let us notice how simple is this means of salvation which God gives us to wash away original sin, and how much it cost Our Lord Jesus Christ , in terms of humiliation and sorrow.
2 Christ was baptised as an example: it is His blood that will purify us
Clearly, Christ was not baptised for His own sake, since as He is God, He could not have the slightest stain of sin. That is what John the Baptist was affirming when he said ‘It is I who should be baptised by you,’ for he recognised the Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It was, rather, to set us an example of what we should do, that Jesus was baptised; for it always pleased Him to make His teaching alive, and therefore to teach us not just by words but also by His actions, as every good teacher will.
Jesus did not tell John he was mistaken; He merely said ‘Let it be thus for this hour; ‘ which makes us think of two things. Firstly, Our Lord recognises that it is indeed He who should be baptising, because it is He who takes away the sins of the world. Secondly, Jesus talks about ‘this hour’ as opposed to ‘his hour’ about which He talks repeatedly throughout the Gospels, and in particular when He says to His blessed Mother at Cana ‘my hour is not yet come’ and again before his Passion, ‘the hour is come when the Son of Man must be glorified.’ The hour of Christ, then, is the hour when He redeems humanity by His sorrowful Passion. So Jesus makes it clear that John’s baptism is just for this hour, but the hour will soon come, the hour for the Son of Man, when He will pour out His blood, that mystical water which will wash mankind clean of all its sins.
3 Christ sanctifies the waters by His baptism
So Christ was baptised to set us an example. Moreover, St Augustine teaches us not only that the water of St John the Baptist’s baptism had nothing whatsoever to give to Christ, but also that it was Christ who gave water the purifying power it exercises in Christian baptism. ‘His mother, Mary, gave birth to the Son of God, and she is chaste; water washed Christ, and it was sanctified.’ In fact, any water whatsoever is valid for baptism, because God is thirsty for our salvation, so He puts the very simplest means at our disposal. Likewise, any person whatsoever, even a non-Catholic, can baptise a person in danger of death; it is enough that he do what the Church requires, and that he do it deliberately (not accidentally). Even if the person does not believe the Catholic faith, as long as he wishes to do what the Church demands for the imposition of this sacrament, and says the words ‘ I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ then he truly baptises.
4 The ease of accessing Baptism
Notice the generosity of our God. He thinks only of our salvation, and makes it so accessible that it is a true affront to His love to delay baptising infants so that they can choose later on. Do you wait for your children’s opinion before feeding them? Do you realise that baptism is the only sure way that we know of to gain access to paradise, to the beatific vision? The case of children who die before baptism has never been given a categorical and definitive answer by the Church; for if such children have not committed any sin, then they do not merit hell; nonetheless since they are not baptised, they are still marked by Original Sin which prevents them from entering Paradise and seeing God face to face. If parents are invited to entrust their children to the mercy of God, they are even more strongly invited not to delay the baptism of their children, which should take place soon after their birth.
5 Baptism makes us adopted sons of God
The baptism of the Son of God made man, is unique. We are all baptised in Jesus Christ, as we say in the Creed: ‘ I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.’ Baptism incorporates us into the humanity redeemed by Christ. It is in Jesus Christ that we are saved. In the Son of God, we are made adopted sons of God. When, at His baptism, the heavens opened to allow the Holy Spirit to descend in the form of a dove, it wasn’t for the sake of the Son of God, who from all eternity lives in the unity of the Holy Spirit, but rather for us; so that by baptism we might have that same Holy Spirit, and He could lead us to grow from virtue to virtue. Also, when God the Father said; “this is my beloved Son’ he was talking, in the strictest sense, of His Son, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, but also, in the broader sense, of all the baptised, who by baptism become adopted sons of God, in Jesus Christ.
6 Baptism makes us capable of the Beatific vision of the Trinity
Finally the baptism of the Son of God reveals the whole Trinity. The Father acknowledges His Son, and the Holy Spirit comes to rest upon Him. In fact, baptism makes us capable of the beatific vision of the Trinity, so it was fitting that at the baptism of Our Lord, the Trinity was revealed – at the very moment of the institution of the first sacrament that gives us access to it.
7 By baptism we are incorporated into Christ
Baptism makes us adopted sons of God, by the baptismal character which marks the baptised with the eternal seal of a child of God. By that we are incorporated in the Church which is the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church is the Body of Christ. Baptism, by incorporating us into Christ’s body, gives us the power to act in union with Christ.
8 Baptism enables us to offer the sacrifice of the Mass in union with the priest
The highest action in which the baptised person can act with Christ is that of offering to God an acceptable sacrifice of adoration. Only those baptised are able to unite themselves efficaciously with the Sacrifice of the Mass, offered by the priest to the whole Trinity. This possibility, not of replacing the priest, but of intentionally uniting with him to offer the only sacrifice acceptable to God, is called ‘the priesthood of the faithful.’ That is why, in the early centuries, the catechumens were required to leave the Church just after the Gospel, as they were unable to unite themselves with the Sacrifice of Christ, which is the Mass.
What a grace to be able to offer oneself with Christ on the cross at the moment of the Offertory. Nothing is more pleasing to God, nothing unites us more closely to God, than the Sacrifice of the Mass, and nothing can obtain more grace for us than the Mass. You who are baptised, see how much you are loved by God, see how lucky you are! Be worthy of that!
Transition: After His baptism, the Gospel tells us, Christ ‘was led by the Spirit into the desert, there to be tempted by the Devil.’ The Venerable Bede teaches us how the crossing of the Red Sea by the Hebrews signified their liberation from the yoke of sin, but that this liberation also took place during the chosen people’s long wandering in the desert, which lasted for forty years of hardship and struggle. In the same way, the baptism which washes us clean of Original Sin and of all personal sin, is immediately followed by spiritual struggle. That is why, straight after His baptism, Jesus was led into the desert.
9 Baptism does not remove concupiscence
In just the same way, we too, after we have been washed clean of Original Sin by baptism, in order to be reconciled with our Creator, we too have to fight with all our strength to stay united with Him. For our human nature remains wounded; it always tends to the evil of not seeking God alone, and always tends to the disorder of seeking its own ends apart from God. That is what we call concupiscence.
10 The rites of exorcism in Baptism
Before the rite of baptism itself, we were exorcised by the priest. For the child is born subject to the rule of Original Sin, and therefore to the Devil. These exorcisms enable the breaking of the Devil’s rule over the child, and so allow the baptism itself to wash away Original Sin. Despite all that, the child is still not free to run straight to God, because his will is still attached to his passions. This disordered attachment tends to want to satisfy its own desires rather than do everything possible to unite itself to God by doing good; and that tendency is what we call concupiscence. The word comes from the Latin, and means ‘tending towards our immediate desire,’ (and therefore easily obtained). So concupiscence is opposed to the union with God, which is more distant and harder to obtain. That is why it constitutes what St Thomas Aquinas called the ‘Fomes peccati’, that is to say, the hearth of sin. It is not actual sin, but a tendency to want to satisfy ego-based desires , rather than seeking God and everything that can unite us to Him, because that is the purpose of our life and the only thing which can finally satisfy us.
11 After Baptism, spiritual combat is essential
Therefore Jesus, in order to teach us how to overcome this concupiscence, chose to undergo temptations, just as we all do. Further, The Imitation of Christ reminds us that ‘this fragile life is nothing but temptation and continual strife.’ Also, to confront that, Jesus went out into the desert, for it is above all in solitude that the devil seeks us out to tempt us. He insists on the fact that nobody can see us. For the Devil even a crowd can become a desert, as long as nobody can recognise us there. However, what sin can remain hidden from God?
12 Fasting: the foundation of the spiritual combat
Nonetheless, St Chrysostom tells us: ‘Our Lord began by fasting, not because he needed to fast, but to teach us how excellent it is, what a shield it offers us against the Devil’s guiles, and also that, after our baptism, we should not dedicate ourselves to pleasure, but to the mortification of the senses.’ The pleasures of the senses are there to help us to build friendships with people like us, but we must watch over them with extreme vigilance, because before we know it, they quickly take first place in our lives, and we end up simply pursuing our own ego-driven passions.
13 Temptation by the Devil
The devil always tries to gain souls cheaply, that is to say, with the weakest temptations. Then his victory is all the greater, because he can damn souls, making them lose the infinite God, for things that even on this earth are insignificant. So it was that the Devil having failed to make Jesus fall by way of hunger, then proceeded to the temptation of vain glory: which is a much more potent temptation. It is relatively easy to do without our bodily necessities, but it is not easy to renounce our spiritual pride. And so, Jesus was taken to the heights of the temple, for the Devil loves to flatter us, to puff us up with pride, to make us believe that we are the best in the world. That strategy only aims to make us fall further and to be overcome by greater shame. Imagine the shame of losing heaven for one wretched bottle of wine, as the Curé d’Ars said.
Finally, the Devil pretends to offer Jesus power, for he does not know that He is the Son of God. This temptation is very interesting because it helps us to understand that usurped power, unhealthy ambition, is a lie, and is always aimed at making a slave of the person to whom such power is promised. Creation belongs to God, but the Devil can give us the illusion of becoming its masters on condition that we adore him instead of God, and thus become his slaves. Christ answers this firmly, saying: ‘Away with thee, Satan!’ teaching us always to rise up and defend the honour of God, who alone is worthy of all honour and all glory!
14 The principle of spiritual combat
The principle is never to want anything, whatever it may be, more than God; and because of our passions, that becomes a real struggle. Consider this reflection by Father Lamennais: ‘Man’s life on earth is a constant struggle against the Devil, against the world, and against himself. Some retire to the cloister to resist them more easily; others remain in the midst of the world. But none can conquer, except by constant vigilance. The habit of reflection, the love of retreat, constant attention to one’s words, one’s thoughts, one’s feelings, fidelity to the lightest of duties and the most humble of practices, save us from the greater temptations and attract graces from heaven. Whoever neglects the little things will fall little by little, says the Holy Spirit.’