Actually, neither the icon nor the feast celebrates the fact that the Lord Jesus was baptized. Rather, we remember what happened at His baptism and what it represents for us as we live our life in Christ. We do not call this the Feast of Christ’s Baptism, focusing on the historical setting. Rather we call it the Feast of the Holy Theophany, or “manifestation of God,”
Manifestation of the TrinityThe troparion of the feast sets the tone for our reflection: “At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed; for the Father’s voice bore witness to You, calling You His beloved Son and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ God, who have appeared to us and enlightened the world, glory to You!”
The story of this theophany is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John’s Gospel, as we shall see, the Baptist alludes to it as he describes the character and mission of Jesus.
The Father’s Voice: Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of a voice from heaven heard at Jesus’ baptism calling Him “My beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). None of the Evangelists say outright that this was the voice of God, but since their picture of Jesus as the Son of God is clear in the Gospels, we can draw no other conclusion.
In icons of the Theophany this voice is depicted symbolically by the ray of light which originates in a geometric shape – often a semicircle – and rests over the head of Jesus.
The Dove: All the Evangelists, including John, describe the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. In John’s Gospel the Baptist offers his own testimony: “He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit;’ and I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:33, 34).
In icons the dove is enclosed in an aureole, symbol of divine glory, in the midst of the ray representing the Father’s voice.
St John of Damascus compared the dove which appeared at the end of the flood to the dove at Jesus’ baptism. “As, at that time the world was cleansed of sin through the waters of the flood, then the dove brought an olive branch to Noah’s Ark announcing the end of the flood, and peace came to the Earth, so, in like manner the Holy Spirit descends as a dove to announce forgiveness of sins and God’s mercy on the world. Then [it was] an olive branch, now it is our Lord’s mercy.”
The graphic presence of the Father (by His voice), the Son (in the flesh) and the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) is the first such manifestation of the Holy Trinity in the New Testament. The second such revelation is at the Holy Transfiguration of Christ as His ministry is drawing to a close.
The Lord Jesus: God and ManChrist is clearly Lord in icons of this feast. Several signs of His divinity and preeminence are found in the way He is shown. In Western depictions of His baptism Jesus is often shown with His head bowed and hands folded in prayer. That is never the case in our icons. He is shown standing erect, often with His hand raised in blessing.
In some older icons Christ is depicted naked. We are back in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve, created in communion with God, are naked and unashamed. The original creation is restored and renewed with the coming of Christ.
“Once You clothed the shameful nakedness of our forefather Adam; now You are stripped naked of Your own will! You covered the roof of heaven with waters; now You wrap Yourself in the streams of Jordan, only merciful Christ.”
In later icons Christ is depicted with a drape around His waist, which represents the winding sheet in which He was wrapped for burial. The river is often depicted in the shape of a cave, suggesting the tomb in which He was laid.
In some icons the water envelops His sacred body which is visible in it. We are thus reminded of the death and resurrection of Christ into which our baptism immerses us.
In other icons Jesus is not submerged into the water at all. He is depicted astride the river as He blesses it. The River Jordan did not cleanse Christ; it is Christ’s presence in its midst which sanctifies the waters.
Other Signs of God’s PresenceThe icon of the Theophany, as well as many of its hymns, includes other elements which point to the divine activity present in Christ at His baptism. Among them are:
John the Forerunner: The presence of John the Baptist is an essential part of the story of Jesus’ baptism. In icons, however, the depiction of John is more about Christ than it is about him. In some icons John is showed bowing to the Lord, bent in awe before the One he had come to announce. In other icons John is depicted as gazing up toward heaven, as if beholding the manifestation of the Father and the Spirit. In either case, although he was the focus of all other baptisms which he performed, John was not the center of this one.
The Axe: In some icons we see a tree stump with an axe embedded in it near where John is standing. This recalls John’s prophetic words to the Pharisees, “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). The axe ready to cut signifies that the Messiah is at hand.
The Seascape: In some icons Christ is shown standing on one or two rocks, sometimes arranged in the form of a cross. Here we are reminded of the resurrection icon in which the Lord is depicted astride the gates of Death. In that icon the personification of Death often lies bound beneath His feet. In the Theophany icon it is often snakes or a sea creature under His feet. In both cases what is depicted is Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness. “You crushed the heads of the dragons in the water” (Psalms 73:14).
“When You bowed Your head to the Forerunner, You crushed the heads of the dragons; and when You stood in the midst of the stream, You let Your light shine upon all creatures, that they might glorify You, Our Savior, who enlighten our souls!”
The Sea: At the bottom of the icon we often find two small figures with astonished looks on their faces, often astride dolphins. They personify these psalm verses, alluding to the Exodus but often heard during the feast of the Theophany: “The sea saw and fled; Jordan turned back… What ails you, O sea, that you fled? O Jordan, that you turned back? O mountains, that you skipped like rams? O little hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob” (Psalms 114:3, 5-7).
Today the prophecy of the Psalms swiftly approaches its fulfillment: “The sea looked and fled: Jordan was driven back” before the face of the Lord, before the face of the God of Jacob! He came to receive baptism from His servant, so that our souls washed clean from the defilement of idolatry, might be enlightened through Him!