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Baptism of the Lord
January 12th is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord in the liturgical calendar. It is also the last day of the Christmas season.
Celebrations of the Lord’s baptism first appeared in the east. On January 6th, the date of the winter solstice, the Church there commemorated the Epiphany, or manifestation, of Christ. Unlike the Western Church, which focussed its celebration of the coming of Christ solely on his nativity, the feast in the Eastern Church recognised three aspects of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God: his birth, his baptism by John in the Jordan, and his first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana.
The account of Christ’s baptism that is read today comes from the gospel according to Matthew. We hear about the voice from heaven announcing “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him” as Jesus “came up from the water” after his baptism.
Water is the central symbol in the celebration of baptism. Water signifies washing. We are weak human beings, prone to sin. God's mercy and grace alone can wash us clean of our sinfulness. Because water is essential to all life, the water of baptism also symbolises the life-giving grace that sustains those who have become children of God.
Using immersion in water – the first option given in the Rite of Baptism - rather than simply pouring water, allows the symbol to speak more powerfully. As the candidate enters the waters of the font, he or she goes back into the womb, so to speak, to be reborn to new life in the Spirit. Immersion also suggests dying and rising. As Christ died, was buried in the tomb and was raised to new life, the candidate too goes down into the tomb in baptism, dies to sin, and rises to new life in Christ.
Another important symbol in the celebration of baptism is the presence of the Christian community which gathers to welcome a new member. Baptism is not a private family occasion; it involves incorporation into the Body of Christ, being made a part of the community of faith. The Rite of Baptism recommends celebrating baptism during Sunday Mass so that the whole community can be present. This practice also makes clear the relationship between baptism and Eucharist.
Oil is used twice in baptism. First the breast is smeared with the oil of catechumens as a sign of healing and strengthening. Afterwards the head is anointed with perfumed chrism as a sign of gladness and thanksgiving.
The white garment with which the newly baptised is then clothed symbolises being enveloped by Christ and is “the outward sign of Christian dignity”. At baptism we were christened (literally, we put on Christ). We were made into a new creation and called to be “other Christs” in the world. While the white garment we received in baptism may now be stored away, we must act as if we were still wearing it.
A baptismal candle is lit from the paschal candle beside the font and presented to the new member as an image of the light of Christ. It is to be "kept burning brightly" and lit again on significant anniversaries and sacramental moments.