Christ is the only way to the immortality we seek
On Holy Saturday evening, 3 April , Benedict XVI presided at
the Easter Vigil Mass in St Peter's Basilica. On this "night of watching
by the Lord" the Pope baptized six catechumens. The following is a
translation of the Holy Father's Homily, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
An ancient Jewish legend from the apocryphal book "The life of Adam
and Eve" recounts that, in his final illness, Adam sent his son Seth
together with Eve into the region of Paradise to fetch the oil of mercy,
so that he could be anointed with it and healed. The two of them went in
search of the tree of life, and after much praying and weeping on their
part, the Archangel Michael appeared to them, and told them they would
not obtain the oil of the tree of mercy and that Adam would have to die.
Later, Christian readers added a word of consolation to the
Archangel's message, to the effect that after 5,500 years the loving
King, Christ, would come, the Son of God who would anoint all those who
believe in him with the oil of his mercy. "The oil of mercy from
eternity to eternity will be given to those who are reborn of water and
the Holy Spirit. Then the Son of God, Christ, abounding in love, will
descend into the depths of the earth and will lead your father into
Paradise, to the tree of mercy".
This legend lays bare the whole of humanity's anguish at the destiny
of illness, pain and death that has been imposed upon us. Man's
resistance to death becomes evident: somewhere
people have constantly thought
there must be some cure for death. Sooner or later it should be possible
to find the remedy not only for this or that illness, but for our
for death itself. Surely the medicine of immortality must exist. Today
too, the search for a source of healing continues. Modern medical
science strives, if not exactly to exclude death, at least to eliminate
as many as possible of its causes, to postpone it further and further,
to prolong life more and more.
But let us reflect for a moment: what would it really be like if we
were to succeed, perhaps not in excluding death totally, but in
postponing it indefinitely, in reaching an age of several hundred years?
Would that be a good thing? Humanity would become extraordinarily old,
there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would
die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation.
The true cure for death must be different. It cannot lead simply to
an indefinite prolongation of this current life. It would have to
transform our lives from within. It would need to create a new life
within us, truly fit for eternity: it would need to transform us in such
a way as not to come to an end with death, but only then to begin in
fullness. What is new and exciting in the Christian message, in the
Gospel of Jesus Christ, was and is that we are told: yes indeed, this
cure for death, this true medicine of immortality, does exist. It has
been found. It is within our reach. In baptism, this medicine is given
to us. A new life begins in us, a life that matures in faith and is not
extinguished by the death of the old life, but is only then fully
To this some, perhaps many, will respond: I certainly hear the message,
but I lack faith. And even those who want to believe will ask: but is it
really so? How are we to picture it to ourselves? How does this
transformation of the old life come about, so as to give birth to the
new life that knows no death?
Once again, an ancient Jewish text can help us form an idea of the
mysterious process that begins in us at baptism. There it is recounted
how the patriarch Enoch was taken up to the throne of God. But he was
filled with fear in the presence of the glorious angelic powers, and in
his human weakness he could not contemplate the face of God.
"Then God said to Michael", to quote from the book of Enoch,
"'Take Enoch and remove his earthly clothing. Anoint him with sweet oil
and vest him in the robes of glory!' And Michael took off my garments,
anointed me with sweet oil, and this oil was more than a radiant
light... its splendour was like the rays of the sun. When I looked at
myself, I saw that I was like one of the glorious beings" (Ph. Rech,
Inbild des Kosmos, II 524).
being reclothed in the new garment of God
is what happens in baptism, so the Christian faith tells us. To be sure,
this changing of garments is something that continues for the whole of
life. What happens in baptism is the beginning of a process that
embraces the whole of our life
it makes us fit for eternity, in such a way that, robed in the garment
of light of Jesus Christ, we can appear before the face of God and live
with him for ever.
In the rite of baptism there are two elements in which this event is
expressed and made visible in a way that demands commitment for the rest
of our lives. There is first of all the rite of renunciation and the
promises. In the early Church, the one to be baptized turned towards the
west, the symbol of darkness, sunset, death and hence the dominion of
sin. The one to be baptized turned in that direction and pronounced a
threefold "no": to the devil, to his pomp and to sin. The strange word
"pomp", that is to say the devil's glamour, referred to the splendour of
the ancient cult of the gods and of the ancient theatre, in which it was
considered entertaining to watch people being torn limb from limb by
What was being renounced by this "no" was a type of culture that
ensnared man in the adoration of power, in the world of greed, in lies,
in cruelty. It was an act of liberation from the imposition of a form of
life that was presented as pleasure and yet hastened the destruction of
all that was best in man.
albeit in less dramatic form
remains an essential part of baptism today. We remove the "old
garments", which we cannot wear in God's presence. Or better put: we
begin to remove them. This renunciation is actually a promise in which
we hold out our hand to Christ, so that he may guide us and reclothe us.
What these "garments" are that we take off, what the promise is that we
make, becomes clear when we see in the fifth chapter of the Letter to
the Galatians what Paul calls "works of the flesh" —a term that refers
precisely to the old garments that we remove.
Paul designates them thus: "fornication, impurity, licentiousness,
idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness,
dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like"
(Gal 5:19ff.). These are the garments that we remove: the garments of
Then, in the practice of the early Church, the one to be baptized
turned towards the east — the symbol of light, the symbol of the newly
rising sun of history, the symbol of Christ. The candidate for baptism
determines the new direction of his life: faith in the Trinitarian God
to whom he entrusts himself. Thus it is God who clothes us in the
garment of light, the garment of life. Paul calls these new "garments"
"fruits of the spirit", and he describes them as follows: "love, joy,
peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,
self-control" (Gal 5:22).
In the early Church, the candidate for baptism was then truly
stripped of his garments. He descended into the baptismal font and was
immersed three times — a symbol of death that expresses all the
radicality of this removal and change of garments. His former
death-bound life the candidate consigns to death with Christ, and he
lets himself be drawn up by and with Christ into the new life that
transforms him for eternity.
Then, emerging from the waters of baptism the neophytes were clothed
in the white garment, the garment of God's light, and they received the
lighted candle as a sign of the new life in the light that God himself
had lit within them. They knew that they had received the medicine of
immortality, which was fully realized at the moment of receiving holy
communion. In this sacrament we receive the body of the risen Lord and
we ourselves are drawn into this body, firmly held by the One who has
conquered death and who carries us through death.
In the course of the centuries, the symbols were simplified, but the
essential content of baptism has remained the same. It is no mere
cleansing, still less is it a somewhat complicated initiation into a new
association. It is death and resurrection, rebirth to new life.
Indeed, the cure for death does exist. Christ is the tree of life,
once more within our reach. If we remain close to him, then we have
life. Hence, during this night of resurrection, with all our hearts we
shall sing the alleluia, the song of joy that has no need of words.
Hence, Paul can say to the Philippians: "Rejoice in the Lord always,
again I will say, rejoice!" (Phil 4:4).
Joy cannot be commanded. It can only be given. The risen Lord gives
us joy: true life. We are already held for ever in the love of the One
to whom all power in heaven and on earth has been given (cf. Mt 28:18).
In this way, confident of being heard, we make our own the Church's
Prayer over the Gifts from the liturgy of this night: Accept the prayers
and offerings of your people. With your help may this Easter mystery of
our redemption bring to perfection the saving work you have begun in us.