Some weeks ago now, in the days following the feast of the Lord’s nativity, the Church celebrated the Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan by Saint John the Baptist. It is a surprising event because Christ, whose divine person is possessed of no sin, has no need of the sacramental washing that results from baptism; the effect which that sacred action has on us cannot have the same effect on him. Rather, the baptism of Christ does not sanctify him, but the water which we in turn receive, and which opens for us the portal of the sacred font as the way to our salvation. As Saint Gregory Nazianzen writes that by his baptism Christ buries the whole of the old Adam in the water, thus putting to death the sin of our first parents—the original sin of the Garden of Eden—and preparing for us a new and living way to be united with Almighty God for all eternity (Or 39, 14-16.20). So through baptism in Christ nothing remains in us to impede our entry into the heavenly kingdom (CCC 1263).
In his meditations on the liturgical year the saintly Bishop Richard Challoner recalls an important lesson found in the texts of today’s Mass. In the reading from the prophet Joel the Lord God calls us to conversion: Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning; the ashes we receive are a sign of that—‘an emblem of contrition and humility’— and thus an exterior reminder of an interior disposition. To receive the ashes is to give expression to a spiritual reality which is presumed to exist in us; by bearing the mark of the ashes we affirm something that (at least in theory) is already present in our lives.
In her wisdom, however, the Church knows that we fall short of this ideal and so recalls us to the standard demanded of us by baptism through the stark character of this Lenten season. The ash we receive, which Bishop Challoner calls ‘a remembrance of our mortality, of our frail composition, and of our hasty return to our mother earth’, is a sign of the death we deserve; a reminder of the result of sin and the vacuum that exists by our rejection of the Lord’s grace. Yet we receive those ashes in the sign of the cross. They are a bitter warning, but by them is also revealed the means of our salvation. As the baptismal font is both the tomb of our death to sin and the place of our birth into eternal life, so by accepting these ashes as a memento mori we are enjoined to embrace that which itself kills sin and returns us to the Lord, and to the unending life he offers.
As we reach the final days of this season of Advent, the sacred liturgy draws our attention to the Lord’s imminent coming in a number of ways. First, the beautiful antiphons which adorn the daily singing of the Magnificat from 17th December – the “O Antiphons” – intensify our prayer, and add a certain urgency. In these texts the Church petitions her Lord under a different title each day, and for a different need. These prophetic titles – like many of the lections at Mass in the past few weeks – remind us that the coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the old dispensation. By calling on the Lord as Radix Iesse, Emmanuel, and so forth, we proclaim our belief that in Christ all prophecy and preparation is ended; he is the alpha and the omega, and in him all things find perfection.