4. THE BAPTISM
According to the general principle that applies in Byzantine hagiography, the Baptism of the Lord is represented in the relevant icon in the way it is described in the Bible and the way it is celebrated by our holy Church, with its Epiphany service. In other words, the Byzantine hagiographer relies on the witness of the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church.
The witness of the Scriptures . The evangelic narration informs us that when John the Baptist preached and baptized in the Jordan , " Christ came from the Galilee to John upon the Jordan to be baptized by him. John however hindered Him, saying: 'it is I who have need to be baptized by You, and yet You come to me?' Christ replied to him, saying: 'Leave it be for now; for it thus behooves us to fulfil every justice ( will of God )'. Then they let Him be; and after Jesus was baptized, He immediately rose up from the waters, and lo, the heavens opened up for Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending in the semblance of a dove, moving towards Him; and behold, a voice from heaven was heard, saying: 'This is my beloved son, in whom I have shown favour'" (from the bible excerpt of the feast day, Matthew 3, 13-17).
As we can see from the above text, the Lord had come from the Galilee with the intent to become baptized, albeit sinless. John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recognized Him. At first, he refused to baptize Him. The thought that he, the servant, the piece of clay, would be baptizing the Almighty, the Creator, terrified him. As mentioned in a verse taken from the service of the Epiphany, " the Precursor ( the Baptist ) was totally shaken, and cried out, saying: 'how can the lamp illuminate the Light? How can the servant lay his hands on the Master?....". Finally, the Baptist submits, and he baptizes the Lord according to God's will. Our Church delves into the words of the evangelic narration, after adding whatever it deems necessary for us to comprehend the significance of the event.
The teaching of the Church . Our Church celebrates the Lord's baptism, because it was during this, that the Holy Trinity first revealed Itself, for which the closing hymn of the Epiphany says: " Upon Your baptism in the Jordan o Lord, the adoration of the Trinity was revealed; and the voice of the Begetter acknowledged you, by naming You His beloved Son; and the Spirit in the semblance of a dove confirmed the veracity of those words. Glory to You, Christ the Lord, Who appeared to us and illuminated the world ". The second reason for celebrating the Lord's Baptism is the relationship of this event with the divine Sacrament of Baptism. Through His baptism, the Lord sanctified the waters; He turned the waters into holy water and a means of reconciliation with God. Thus, the Lord's baptism opened the door to the Baptism Sacrament. This Sacrament is pre-depicted in the Old Testament, in the description of the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan river by the Israelites. In these two cases - the Red Sea and the Jordan - the waters parted miraculously and allowed the free passage of the people. The excerpt of a psalm refers to the splitting of the Red Sea and the drying up of the Jordan : " The Sea beheld and moved away, and the Jordan flowed backwards " (Psalm 113,3) . This psalm, intact or in variations thereof, is heard many times during the divine service of the Epiphany. This is because - as we said - the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan were forerunners of the Sacrament of Baptism. We enter the baptismal font as servants of Satan, and we come out of it, freed of his bondage, just as the Israelites were released from the bondage of the Egyptians. Following all that we just said about the significance of the Baptism feast, let us see how the icon of the Baptism portrays the witness of the Holy Bible and the teaching of our Church.
Description of the icon (pic.7) At the top of the icon, there is a semi-circle which symbolizes the opening of the heavens. Rays emanate from it, and the Holy Spirit descends towards Christ's head " in the semblance of a dove ". The heavens are the place of God the Father, who in certain icons of the Baptism (as for instance in the Baptism icons at the Daphni Monastery and the Ossios Lukas Monastery in the Phocis province), is denoted by a hand extended in blessing. The appearance of the Holy Trinity is the foremost element of significance in the icon of the Baptism.
The hagiographer then transports us to the water masses of the Jordan , which the Lord sanctified with His Baptism. " Towering rocks close in and form a gorge, through which flows the Jordan river with a gushing current; In midstream stands the Christ, naked except for a white loincloth around His middle. With His right hand in this icon, He blesses the waters, while in many other icons He blesses with both hands. In some icons He is depicted facing forward, while in others He is portrayed side-on, with His immaculate limbs placed apart, as though He is walking. His holy face is austere and alert, in view of the grand mystery that is taking place. His body appears as though it is carved on wood -with various marks vividly etched on the chest, the shoulders and the belly - and not at all fleshy in appearance " (Fotis Kontoglou). The Lord appears to be in a walking stance in many icons of the Baptism, because, as Ouspensky observes, it was He that took the initiative to be baptized. He came to the Jordan of His own free will, and asked to be baptized by John.
In the waters of the Jordan , we can see fish swimming around, and also a half—dressed woman astride a serpent. The woman symbolizes the Red Sea . (In other icons, we find a man portrayed, respectively symbolizing the Jordan ). Mentions of serpents are found in the Psalms, as well as in hymns and the benedictions of the service for the Sanctification of the Waters: ".... You have crushed the heads of serpents in the waters (= the Egyptians in the Red Sea ) " (Psalm 73, 13). " You... Have also crushed the heads of the serpents nestling therein " (Benediction of the Sanctification Rite) " And he crushes the heads of nestling serpents" (hymn, ode 2).
Most icons of the Baptism depict Christ entirely nude. This is how the feast-day hymns also describe Him. Nakedness stresses how much the Lord diminished His glory and His divinity for our sake. He denuded Himself, in order to dress humanity with the garment of eternal glory. Others interpreted His nakedness as the naked state of Adam. In this way, the Lord restores humanity's glorious garb of paradise. (P. Eudokimov)
On one bank of the Jordan stands the Baptist. He is looking ecstatically at the Holy Spirit. His one hand is posed above the Master's head. The other hand is extended in prayer. In this way, he is displaying his awe, for the honor bestowed on him by the Lord, to baptize Him.
On the opposite bank of the river are the forms of four angels. They too are participants of this unusual mystery, according to the hymn of the feast-day: " As in heaven, the Hosts of Angels stood in fear and wonder by the Jordan , gazing upon God's such condescension ..." (Canon, ode 7). They are stunned by this condescension; three of them bow before the Lord, worshiping Him with reverence while the fourth angel looks heavenwards and prays. They are respectfully waiting to receive the Lord's body, by extending the drying cloths that they hold in their hands. It has been beautifully said that they symbolize and they depict the words of the Apostle Paul: " Whomsover is baptized in Christ, is enrobed in Christ " (Galatians, 3, 27).
The lower left portion of the icon is destroyed. In this section, there would have been the symbolic form of the Jordan and near the Baptist would have been the pick that reminds us of the Baptist's word to the Pharisees: " Behold, the pick is already standing by the roots of the trees; therefore, every tree that does not produce good fruits will be cut away and thrown into the fire " (Matthew, 3, 10).