Cleansing Fire

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Icons of the Great Feasts: The Baptism of the Lord

January 9th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: here, here, here, and here.

The Baptism of the Lord

(Theophany or, even, Epiphany)

(Click on picture for a larger image)

“And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, ‘Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'” -Mark 1: 10, 11 (from the Gospel read at the Matins of the day)

“The River Jordan once turned back before the mantle of Elisha, after Elijah had been taken up into heaven and the waters were divided on this side and on that: The stream became a dry path before him, forming a true figure of the baptism whereby we pass over the changeful course of life. Christ has appeared in the Jordan to sanctify the waters.” -from the Eastern Liturgy for the Baptism of the Lord

Originally, The Baptism of the Lord was celebrated on Epiphany along with the Feast of the Three Kings/Magi and the Wedding in Cana. Over time, the feast of the Baptism was assigned a separate date. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate the feast -which they call The Theophany (showing or appearance of diety)- on January 6. For the Roman Catholic Church and the churches in the Anglican Communion, the Baptism of the Lord is observed on the first Sunday after Epiphany. Most Protestant Christian groups do not specifically celebrate the Baptism as a feast day on the church calendar.

There are three aspects to this feast and its icon: 1) the revelation of the full dogmatic truth of the Trinity and the Divinity of Jesus; 2) the establishment of the New Testament sacrament of Baptism; and, 3) analogies of the Baptism of the Lord with Old Testament prefigurations.

On this day it was revealed that Jesus is the Divine Son of God, and that God is One God, but, a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When Jesus came up out of the water, John heard the voice of the Father (“Thou art my beloved Son…”) and saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, confirm this voice. In accordance with the Gospel text, appearing in the icon at the top edge, there is a segment of a circle symbolizing the opening of the heavens and the presence of the Father, which is sometimes also indicated by a hand blessing Jesus. Falling upon the Savior are rays of divine light issuing from the Father and containing the Holy Spirit, appearing in the same kind of circle that we saw enclose the star of the magi in the Nativity of the Lord icon.

On the other hand, as Jesus established the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist while celebrating the Old Testament Passover, so He establishes the sacrament of Baptism while performing an act of ablution originating with the Old Testament prophets. But, instead of the water of the Jordan purifying and sanctifying Him, He descends into the water to sanctify the water and to make the water an efficacious sacramental for our own purification and regeneration in our Baptism. He who became sin for us is covered by the waters of the Jordan. He is represented in the icon as standing against a background of water. In this icon the water delicately and rhythmically washes over the legs and feet. In most older style icons the water appears as a flat background without any overlap of the figure of Jesus. The shape of the body of water is often reminiscent of a cave and leaves us with the impression that Christ is immersed in a kind of token burial and that Baptism is meant to signify the death and burial of the Lord. Like Jesus, in Baptism we too go down into the water, and, again like Jesus, we rise up out of the water -but as a new person- filled with the Holy Spirit and new life. In a great many of the images of Baptism from the catacombs the person represented as being baptized -including the Savior himself- is depicted as a child, as new and innocent life.

With Christ’s Baptism -from his going down into the water and rising from it again- water becomes an image not of death  but of birth into new life. Christ’s body has sanctified the water. Each time we dip our fingers into holy water and bless ourselves we should be reminded of the fact that we have been reborn in Christ through the water of Baptism, in the name of the Blessed Trinity.

In addition to Theophany and the institution of the sacrament of Baptism, the icon of the Baptism of the Lord also calls to mind Old Testament prefigurations. The Fathers of the Church explain the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s Baptism by analogy with Noah’s Flood. As the world was purified by the water of the Flood and a dove brought an olive branch to Noah announcing the end of the flood and the restoration of peace, so also a dove (the Holy Spirit) signifies the remission of sins through God’s merciful sending of his only begotten Son.

Two small figures are sometimes depicted in the water at the feet of the Savior, among the fish in the Jordan. One is usually a naked man with his back turned to the Lord and the other is often a half-naked women running away or riding a fish (not in this icon). The figures correspond to the Old Testament text “The sea saw and fled; Jordan was turned back” (Ps. 113: 3). The male figure is an allegorical figure representing the Jordan in the following text:

“Elisha turned back the river Jordan with the mantle, when Elijah had been taken up, and the waters were divided hither and thither; and the bed of the river was to Elisha a dry pathway, as a true type of Baptism, by which we pass through the changing course of life.” –Troparion for the Sunday before Epiphany

The female figure is an allegory of the sea and refers to the other prefiguration of Baptism -the crossing of the Red Sea by the Hebrews.

John the Baptist extends one hand out over the head of Christ, a sacramental gesture that has always been a part of the liturgy of Baptism. His left hand is outstretched with the palm facing up while he looks up indicating that he is receiving or hearing the word of the Father, “This is my beloved Son…”

The angels are not mentioned in the biblical text but they are mentioned in texts of the Eastern Divine Services. Their function in the scene is uncertain. Some think they are placed there to minister to the Lord when he comes out of the water. It seems this iconographer has made that his interpretation by painting the angels holding towels. In other icons each angel has his hands covered with a pallium (or cloak) as an indication of reverence for Him Whom he serves. Their covered hands imply the Divinity of Jesus which, of course, is the message of the icon. It is the sacred message of the ritual they convey to us that causes them to cover their hands, as we do whenever we handle something precious or scared.

The Baptism of the Lord is celebrated by Roman Catholics today, January 9. It also signals the end of the Christmas season.

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Book suggestion:

The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky

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