Above is one such icon, a typical Eastern representation of the Baptism of the Lord. The waters of Baptism flow down the center of the image, flanked by mountains; a host of angels attends this great Theophany, or unveiling of God; on the left, an axe lies at the foot of a tree, recalling the prophecy of John the Baptist: “And now also the ax is laid to the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Matt 3:10); the waters and the creatures in it roll back in fear from Jesus, echoing the psalmist: “the sea saw and fled, the Jordan turned back” (Psalm 114:3); the Holy Spirit descends as a dove out of heaven; John, though he is the one with authority to baptize, humbly bows before the manifestation of God while gazing in wonder at the Father in heaven; Christ, on the other hand, stands tall and upright, almost as if above the water, blessing the water. The density of symbolism and richness of the image warrant volumes of commentary, and while we cannot undertake an expansive study here, let us reflect on three aspects of the Lord’s Baptism as we approach this feast.
1. On water
Yes, Baptism is new life, and water is a symbol of life. That much is so readily apparent through the testimony of Scripture: “As the deer longs for founts of water, so does my soul desire to be unto you” (Psalm 42); “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within him” (John 7); examples can be multiplied. In fact, so deep-seated is our tendency to associate water with life that a famous passage from Romans 6, upon closer inspection, might puzzle us by its correlation between baptism and death:
Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.
Is Paul, a great Jewish scholar, denying water’s “life force” as attested by Scripture? Certainly not. Yet how can he associate baptism firstly with death? Here we should distinguish between two types of water. The first type, the life-giving water, is often mentioned as “flowing”; “streams”, “sources”, and “founts” give us this flowing, living water. These are small, controlled conduits of water, whose calm and measured utterances satiate the dry desert’s thirst and cause it to issue life.
The second type of water is the Sea: vast, powerful, and uncontrollable. In ancient times, sailors who set out upon the Sea often never returned. Its infinite horizon and unpredictable temperament incited fear and awe in the hearts of men, and this idea of a “raging Sea of death” informs the earliest stories of the Bible. In Genesis, we read that in the beginning, “the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters” (1:2); the Hebrew word for “abyss” signified the primordial, chaotic ocean according to the old Semitic world-view, and these “waters” over which swept God’s “mighty wind” represents the unfathomable void, lifeless void, the nihil ex quo omnia a Verbo Dei facta sunt.
The creation story of Genesis 1 is a story of a God who twice “splits the waters” as he wields his creative power, first separating the waters above the firmament and below the firmament, then by bringing forth dry land in the midst of the lower waters. The chaotic Sea retreats before the Author of Life. Years later, when mankind falls away from God and merits the destruction of the world, the Almighty sends a Flood to wipe out his creation. The only remnants of life, Noah’s family and the animals, remain safely in the Ark, sailing above the waters of death. When the people Israel are released from the bondage of Egypt, they arrive at the seemingly impassable Red Sea, trapped between the waters on one side and Pharaoh’s army on the other; but God again “splits the waters”, and Moses leads the Israelites dry-shod across the seabed. As the Egyptians give chase, God releases the waters of death and vanquishes the pagan army. The Exodus becomes Israel’s “baptism” into nationhood.
Thus, for the Jews of old, water was a powerful and readily apprehensible symbol of death and destruction. This is why the Gospel stories in which Jesus calms the sea-storm and walks on water were so captivating to the early Jewish-Christians. These episodes demonstrate that Jesus Christ is truly God, for the waters of death obey his command; he walks over the abyss as Noah sailed over the Flood.
Now Paul’s statement comes into striking relief: baptism is a descent into the primordial abyss of death. Christ’s baptism foreshadows his Passion and descent into true bodily death. Jesus will “empty himself” and dive into the sea of chaos; re-emerging victoriously, he “splits the waters” and opens up the way to new life in the Spirit. Christ becomes the archetype of Israel and Psalm 114 rings true again: “When Israel came out of Egypt, Jacob from a people of foreign tongue, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back.” We too are therefore called to baptism, to die with Christ, and to rise with him to new life.
2. On the relationship between Christ and the Baptist
As mentioned before, in Eastern imagery, Christ stands upright in the river as John bows in reverence, eyes fixed on heaven. In the Western tradition, this is reversed: Christ assumes a posture of humble prayer while John stands above him, looking down on Jesus with authority. Compare the Greek icon above with Perugino’s famous depiction of the same scene:
All the great masters of the Renaissance follow this pattern in portrayals of the Baptism. Which is correct, the Latin or the Greek? Of course, we would have to say that both, taken together, are correct; in their difference, they each emphasize the two different natures in the person of Christ. The typical Greek iconist puts Christ’s divinity in focus, while the artists of the West tended to humanize Jesus. But what does this have to do with Christ and John?
An excursus into the realm of liturgy, specifically, the direction of liturgical prayer, might shed some light. The testimony of early Greek and Latin Christianity attests to the universality of prayer ad orientem. Initially, this was a holdover from its Semitic past in which the worshipers and the priest faced the same direction, orienting themselves towards the location of God’s presence. In Jewish antiquity, this meant facing the direction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Muslims likewise pray toward the holy city of Mecca. But with the revelation of Christ, a radical change occurred in the Christian consciousness.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!” (Luke 24:5-6) The words of the angel to the incredulous disciples resonated with the early Christians, who realized that the time foretold by Christ to the Samaritan woman had arrived: “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… [that hour is] now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him” (John 4:21-23). Thus the disciples understood that worship could no longer be tied to a particular geographical place. Christ had ascended into heaven, into the fullness of the cosmos, now equally accessible to all creation. Christians therefore oriented their worship not toward an earthly city, but toward the ever-receding, ever-expanding horizon of the East, in joyful expectation of the return of the Son of Man, who is the rising sun of history. As a general rule, the primitive communities accordingly built their churches from West to East to make the actio liturgica a visible concretization of this new messianic expectation.
Considering the history of the Church, we recognize another ad orientem dimension; we know that the Church arose in the East and spread to the West. Although Rome holds the primacy, she still must always look ad orientem, towards that horizon from where she received the Christian faith, never to forget the Graeco-Semitic roots of that precious doctrine which she now guards with jealous tenacity. If we likewise view the iconography of the Baptism in an ad orientem, “West-to-East” manner, we find that in the Latin tradition, Christ humbles himself before John, while in the Greek images, John humbles himself before Christ. In the West, the Forerunner is superior, but moving Eastward, the Lamb takes prominence. Seen this way, both artistic traditions of West and East supply fresh meaning to the words of Baptist: “I must decrease; he must increase” (John 3:30).
Every Christian must own that statement, for even He who must increase became the last of all and humbled himself unto death on a Cross. John preceded his cousin into the waters of baptism and thus preceded him in death; in this way he “prepared the way of the Lord and made straight his paths” (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1; Matthew 3:3). Through our own baptisms, we are called to be new Forerunners for the Paraousia, ready to suffer the same fate as the Baptist.
3. On the Kingship of Christ
Upon what we Latins call “the Baptism of the Lord” the Greeks bestow the fitting name “Theophany”–the revelation of God. It is the unveiling of the Trinity: the voice of the Father, the presence of the Son, and the dove-like Spirit are made manifest in one moment. We hear the words from the Father heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” To the Jews of Jesus’ time, these words speedily brought to mind Psalm 2, which begins:
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; this day I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.”
This was the coronation formula of Israel’s kings, which was in turn borrowed from the ancient coronation rites of other Near East civilizations. The idea of the king as begotten by a god by virtue of his ascension to the throne functioned as a form of “divine right” which legitimized the king’s reign. But the formula continues, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession”. Yes, the Persians, Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians at certain points amassed expansive territorial gains, and the boast of the coronation rites could have been fitting in those cases, but we know the ultimate fate of all these empires. Even less could be said of Israel’s kingdom, dwarfed in size and prestige by its polytheistic neighbors. Soon, the coronation formula will appear to be pure mockery when applied to Israel’s king, and will become bitter irony as, in later years, the Temple will be razed and the Promised Land absorbed into the borders of various empires.
In captivity and subjugation, the Jews realized that the king foretold by the Psalm had not yet come; thus the theology of election expressed in the coronation rite became a theology of hope and expectation for the true king who would fulfill the oracle. Perhaps he would not be a worldly king, like those of Israel’s neighbors, for they too will see death and their empires will wither. No, the Messiah is something greater, but just what exact form he will take remains hidden from their eyes.
Through Jesus comes the manifestation of God. As the kings of old were anointed by prophets and priests, so too is Jesus anointed by John, the last prophet of the Jews. Immersion in water–immersion into death– replaces the unction of oil, and the Son is also anointed with the Holy Spirit. His election is proclaimed not by a priest–not by God’s human surrogate– but by the Father himself, who, by using the old formula of coronation, definitively establishes the permanence of the Kingdom– a Kingdom not of this world (John 18:36), but of the metaphysical and the eternal. Having been anointed and his election confirmed by the Father, Jesus now goes to the synagogue at Capernaum, and taking the scroll of Psalm 61, he dramatically makes these ancient words his own, saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)
Through the symbolism of water, we understand how Baptism signifies Christ’s victory over death. By looking at the images of the Baptism from the Greek and Latin traditions, we glimpse both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, while John teaches us that to truly preach Christ entails a firm grounding in humility, even unto death, deferring always to the Lamb of God. Finally, the Baptism functions as Jesus’ coronation, by which his Sonship is made known to John and his disciples, and is the beginning of his public ministry of preaching the Kingdom–a Kingdom of the humble and meek, who as “children of God” shall inherit the nations and possess the ends of the earth. For as Christ will tell the multitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” (Matthew 5:3-5)