Retreat on Icons
Early XIV century, Ohrid, Serbia
Composition of the icons for the Baptism of Christ developed between the third and sixth centuries and they have remained mainly consistent since then. Icons show the Lord Jesus appearing and revealing himself in public in a special way. Not just the Son, but the two other persons of the Trinity are manifested: one in a form of a dove and the other the voice that calls upon his son. Here the Holy Trinity is revealed, Christ is baptized and the origins of Christian baptism are discerned.
The Epiphany for the West is mainly focused on the visit of the Magi; while in the East, what is called “Theophany” or “Epiphany” relates to the Baptism of Christ. This separate celebration of Christ’s Baptism feast dates from the fourth century. Before that it was united to the Nativity. This separate celebration was a reflection of the situation in the Church at the time. In the fourth century, the Church was prepared to answer questions about the divinity of Christ raised by Arius from Alexandria (250-336 AC). Is Jesus divine? Does this mean that he is God? “Of course”, we may say, but it was not certain in the first centuries of Christianity. Icons of Baptism reflect the teaching of the Church at the Council of Nicea in 325.
Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son Incarnate from the Virgin Mary. Thus, icons manifest in colours, lines and other elements the teaching of the Church at the councils, the central truth of our faith, like the Divine Maternity of Mary, Her Virginity and that Christ is the incarnate Son of God, truly God and truly Man united in one person.
The icon of the Baptism of Christ reproduces the gospel account. It also contains other elements taken from the liturgy and from other biblical texts. The implication of the Trinity, for example, at the beginning of Genesis: “Let there be light” is implied in the symbol of the ray of light at the centre of the icon. It also recalls the column of light in the desert as God’s presence. The Trinity is manifested in the icon without divisions. It is a unity.
Christ in the Jordan blessed the water in order that we may enter into a renewed life, a new creation. Christ immersed in the Jordan symbolized our own immersion in the waters of Baptism. Christian baptism follows Christ in the Jordan. Liturgical text and liturgical actions in the East accompany this event. Texts refer to Christ saving Adam by cleansing and enlightenment. He comes to slay the enemy hidden in the waters in order to deliver the world from his snares and give eternal life to mankind. Dragons are frequently represented in this icon and in hymns derived from the Psalm 74:13 “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” Other texts show a sense of paradox like: The master baptized by the servant, the Source of joy baptized in the streams of the Jordan, the Invisible becoming visible at the Jordan.
In practice, the liturgical act is an extension of what Christ did at the Jordan. The waters were blessed and the life of his creation renewed. So, the day before Theophany, called Forefeast, the first blessing of the water is for the sacrament of Baptism and other uses in the Church. It takes place at the centre of the church. The second blessing of water takes place outside in the environment such as rivers and seas because they are related to nature for the use of everyday’s life.
Water as a key element of material creation becomes instrument of renewal, healing and sanctification administered by the Church. In the icon the dark central area representing the waters of the Jordan looks very much like a mouth of a cave. It may recall to similar features to the icons of Nativity and Anastasis (Easter). He is portrayed standing naked in the Jordan symbolizing the nakedness of Adam. His right hand is always blessing the waters. Above Christ is John the Baptist with his right hand on Jesus’s head and with the other pointing out either the one who is been baptized or to the one who send him, all in the light of the Trinity. He is in a higher level representing the humility of Christ, the Servant of God
On the right there are angels attending this mystery. They show that heavens are participating in this cosmic event at the Baptism of him who is Human and Divine, God and Man at the same time. Their hands covered and their bowed position show a sign of veneration. At the top of the icon we see the dark blue shape representing the divine reality from which comes a ray that contains in it the dove descending on Christ. It also is seen in icons of the Annunciation and Nativity manifesting the Trinity in a mysterious way bringing about in different events God’s plan of salvation. The dove also is related to the story of the flood in the Old Testament in the figure of Noah. It involves destruction and a new beginning.
The sacrament of Baptism takes us into Christ work of redemption achieved by his death and resurrection. It is signified in his baptism, because here the Holy Trinity has been manifested as it was manifested at the Transfiguration of Christ. The words of the Father are very similar, and the cloud that covered Jesus and the shape of dove upon Jesus reveal the link between these two events. The image of the Baptism of Christ is interpreted as the opening of a path to a new life.
The movement from death to life reminds us that his death and his resurrection opens the door to our own resurrection in Him. John Chrysostom said: "Going down into the water and coming up again in baptism are the image of the descent of Christ into Hades and of his resurrection." Thus, the icon of the Baptism of Christ, like all other true icons, is embedded in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. They exist in order to invigorate the spiritual and theological life of the faithful. Through these icons we can approach God and God can approach us in a more familiar way. We can meet the Lord in his mysteries as we prepare our hearts to be responsive to God in the ordinary circumstances of our lives.
A good icon that refers to the Eucharist is the Famous Trinity icon of Andrei Rublev. It is based on the Old Testament account of the hospitality of Abraham under the oak of Mamre. The three mysterious pilgrims which the bible called angels announced the miraculous birth of Isaac, an announcement that fulfilled what God had promised to Abraham. This event became a source of patristic interpretations, but it was in the East of the ninth and tenth centuries that used it in liturgical and theological works. They saw in this event the symbolic apparition to Abraham of the Holy Trinity.
The three angels, grouped together in a conversation round the table, outline the shape of a circle, a perfect figure. Symbols of the bread and the chalice contain a calf’s head. It is the symbol of the lamb of sacrifice which becomes the centre of the circle. It refers to the passion, death and Resurrection of Christ, the love manifested in the sacrifice of the cross. So, the Icon of the Trinity as Eucharist shows us that God’s love for man which results in the Incarnation has its origin in the very Nature of the Triune God as Eternal Love and Communion.
The lines that make up the image are replete with theological implications.. We can also concentrate on the “back to front” perspective. It is not a natural, temporal and realistic perspective. The point in the picture where all lines meet is not, as in other pictures, behind the figures: they meet in the heart of the person looking at the icon!! It is as though the persons are looking at us, that we are the picture, rather than the other way round. It is not man who contemplates God but God who contemplates man. In the same way, Christ offered Himself in his body and blood to us without any merits from our part. The icon draws us into the dimension of the eternal.
There are various interpretations of the individual persons. The Father may be on the right because this would put Christ on his right, which is his normal position. On the other hand, He may be represented by the angel on the left because the other two persons wear stoles, and he does not. A stole means that a person has been sent. Both the Son and the Spirit were sent; the Father was the One who sent the Son and the Spirit. What most people who interpret this icon agree, is that the Son is in the middle. He is blessing the cup and the the gifts, as he did in the last Supper and on the Road to Emmaus. He is also the one the People of God saw face to face when he became man.
So, the meal prepared by Abraham and Sarah prefigures the Last Supper. It was during the Last Supper that Christ founded the Church and instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In addition, a liturgical Eucharistic act is seen here. The two angels at each side stand for the priests saying the prayers over the Eucharistic gifts. It is a reflection of the Liturgy of Heaven. Thus, to share the table the Trinity also recalls the Eucharist banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Holy Eucharist Icon
Following what we mentioned about the Eucharist banquet in heaven, this icon does not depict an event from the life of Christ or His apostles. Rather, it represents the timeless, eternal, and mystical event being celebrated celestially. The Eucharist is not restricted to a particular time or place.
The Eucharist was already described by St. Paul as the “proclamation” of Christ’s death and Second Coming. As the purpose of Scripture is essentially the proclamation of the Kingdom and the announcement of eschatological realities, the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Kingdom.
The icon frequently has the Scriptures on the altar with the words: I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven. It comes from John’s Gospel 6:32. Christ is presented as bread, and sometimes icons place Christ in a chalice symbolizing his own body and blood. In other icons Mary is behind Christ in the shape of a chalice representing the container, the one who bears the Lamb of God in her womb.
 John Chrisostom says: “It is not the day when Christ was born that should be called epiphany, but the day when he was baptised because before the day of his baptism he was not known to the people”. Cf. Festival of Icons for the Christian year by John Baggley, p. 49.
 Cf. The Art of the Icon by Paul Evdokimov, p. 295.
 Cf. Cf. Festival of Icons for the Christian year by John Baggley, p. 49. Text taken from the Sixth Hour on the Eve of the Theophany.
 Homily 1 Cor. 40; PG 61,34 B.
 Genesis 18
 Taken from Dionisij Worshop 2000, p.12.
 I Cor. 11