Notes on the icon of the Baptism of the Lord

Notes on the icon of the Baptism of the Lord

  • The central axis top to bottom a ‘Theophany’ – a revelation of God – or Image of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • At the top of the icon appears the arc of a circle as if breaking from heaven – symbolizing the opening of heaven which Adam had closed for himself and his descendants.
  • The start of the theophany – God becoming manifest. The voice of God the Father speaking of Jesus – This is my son!
  • Below the arc or sometimes within appears the form of the dove – the Holy Spirit
  • The spirit described at the beginning of Genesis moving over the waters at the dawn of creation. Cardinal Nichols: ‘The Holy Spirit hovering, ‘brooding’ between the Father and the Son expresses the power of God poured out in the act of creation’. As in Genesis so here, the presence of the spirit at the creation of a new form of humanity in Jesus the ’Son of Man’
  • The appearance of the spirit as a dove by analogy with the flood: just as then the world was purified of its iniquities by the flood and the dove with the olive branch arrived to Noah’s ark announcing the end of the flood and the return of peace so now too the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove to announce the remission of sins and God’s mercy to the world.
  • Jesus is represented fully immersed in the Jordan. His whole body in the water which pictorially surrounds him, like a coffin or tomb an image anticipating his death and burial.  The waters represent sin and death and thus Christ’s complete immersion into the perilous existence of humankind.
  • Christ is represented near naked, or naked in some icons, symbolic of his ‘kenosis’ self emptying – taking the lowest place so that none would be lower. His humility allowing himself to be baptized John is just one step in this process.
  • Alternative interpretation – ‘Jesus represents the second Adam (1 Cor 15).  In shame and nakedness, Adam hid.  Yet Christ comes in his majesty, both as God and man, both in glory and nakedness completely unashamed, representing the beauty of the undefiled human made possible through Him (and in the subsequent centuries, Christians were often baptized without any clothing, shedding the garments of the “old man” to die in Christ and be resurrected in Him).’
  • Jesus steps forward with a movement of determination – an urgency to fulfil his mission, a resolve to enter the will of the Father, and to be about the business of saving us from the ‘mire of the marsh’ Psalm 40
  • With his right hand Christ blesses the Jordan from which onwards the water becomes not an image of death but of a birth into new life. Christ’s Baptism a passage through death to resurrection – he comes forth from the water and he raises the world with him.
  • All the waters of the heavens and earth are connected therefore no place now remains outside the benefit of Christ’s saving action. All water is thus holy.
  • The flow of the Jordan changed when it received Christ; ‘The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back. What ails you O sea that you flee? O Jordan that you turn back?’ Ps 114: 3-5. Some icons picture a dry riverbed at the bottom – The sea of unbelief receding and the Jordan carrying to Heaven by turning back on its course. The allegorical figures either side Christ’s feet represent the Jordan on the left and a sea monster on the right.  They are startled by something greater than they entering the waters.
  • St Paul: ‘We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’
  • ‘You have been buried with him by your baptism…you were dead because you were sinners…he has brought you to life with him, he has forgiven every one of us our sins’ Col 2:12
  • The horizontal axis reading left to right – All creation is represented to witness this momentous event. On the left St. John the Baptist who stands representing all humanity
  • John is shown with his face turned upward hearing voice of the Father – in other icons he bows his head or body – the last of the prophets not fit to undo the strap of the sandal.
  • At the bottom left is a tree stump with an axe, representing John’s words to the Pharisees ‘Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ (Matt 3:10)
  • On the right the angels, representing the the spiritual/celestial order – an angel looks up looks up witnessing the miracle of the Theophany.
  • The angels are waiting to attend and dress him. They wait with reverence to accept the newly revealed Son of God.
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