On the 90th anniversary of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s birth and baptism, as on every Easter, I find myself remembering his words about the mystery of the “new life” that is Christianity.
From among the many sublime quotations from his Easter public addresses that could be quoted:
Baptism is something quite different from an act of ecclesial socialization, from a slightly old-fashioned and complicated rite for receiving people into the Church. It is also more than a simple washing, more than a kind of purification and beautification of the soul. It is truly death and resurrection, rebirth, transformation to a new life.
How can we understand this? I think that what happens in Baptism can be more easily explained for us if we consider the final part of the short spiritual autobiography that Saint Paul gave us in his Letter to the Galatians. Its concluding words contain the heart of this biography: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). I live, but I am no longer I. The “I”, the essential identity of man – of this man, Paul – has been changed. He still exists, and he no longer exists. He has passed through a “not” and he now finds himself continually in this “not”: I, but no longer I.
With these words, Paul is not describing some mystical experience which could perhaps have been granted him, and could be of interest to us from a historical point of view, if at all. No, this phrase is an expression of what happened at Baptism. My “I” is taken away from me and is incorporated into a new and greater subject. This means that my “I” is back again, but now transformed, broken up, opened through incorporation into the other, in whom it acquires its new breadth of existence. Paul explains the same thing to us once again from another angle when, in Chapter Three of the Letter to the Galatians, he speaks of the “promise”, saying that it was given to an individual – to one person: to Christ. He alone carries within himself the whole “promise”. But what then happens with us? Paul answers: You have become one in Christ (cf. Gal 3:28). Not just one thing, but one, one only, one single new subject. This liberation of our “I” from its isolation, this finding oneself in a new subject means finding oneself within the vastness of God and being drawn into a life which has now moved out of the context of “dying and becoming”. The great explosion of the Resurrection has seized us in Baptism so as to draw us on. Thus we are associated with a new dimension of life into which, amid the tribulations of our day, we are already in some way introduced. To live one’s own life as a continual entry into this open space: this is the meaning of being baptized, of being Christian. This is the joy of the Easter Vigil. The Resurrection is not a thing of the past, the Resurrection has reached us and seized us. We grasp hold of it, we grasp hold of the risen Lord, and we know that he holds us firmly even when our hands grow weak. We grasp hold of his hand, and thus we also hold on to one another’s hands, and we become one single subject, not just one thing. I, but no longer I: this is the formula of Christian life rooted in Baptism, the formula of the Resurrection within time. I, but no longer I: if we live in this way, we transform the world. It is a formula contrary to all ideologies of violence, it is a programme opposed to corruption and to the desire for power and possession.
“I live and you will live also“, says Jesus in Saint John’s Gospel (14:19) to his disciples, that is, to us. We will live through our existential communion with him, through being taken up into him who is life itself. Eternal life, blessed immortality, we have not by ourselves or in ourselves, but through a relation – through existential communion with him who is Truth and Love and is therefore eternal: God himself. Simple indestructibility of the soul by itself could not give meaning to eternal life, it could not make it a true life. Life comes to us from being loved by him who is Life; it comes to us from living-with and loving-with him. I, but no longer I: this is the way of the Cross, the way that “crosses over” a life simply closed in on the I, thereby opening up the road towards true and lasting joy.
Thus we can sing full of joy, together with the Church, in the words of the Exsultet: “Sing, choirs of angels . . . rejoice, O earth!” The Resurrection is a cosmic event, which includes heaven and earth and links them together. In the words of the Exsultet once again, we can proclaim: “Christ . . . who came back from the dead and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever”. Amen!