Saturday, January 9, 2016

Epiphany & Reading Icons

Epiphany 1: The Baptism of the Lord

Gospel Reading

Luke 3:15-17,21-22

What sort of stories do you like, or, rather, how do you like your stories told? Do you like a story that begins at the end, or the middle, and then goes back in time to explain how this all happened? Or, might you like me, be someone who appreciates a tale told in proper order and no messing about with the sequence of events? The art of story-telling has many forms, far beyond those that I have just touched on and yet there is something to be said for a clear order and sequence – we enjoy it.

And that is why I find this first Sunday of Epiphany, The Baptism of the Lord, a little confusing. We have only just celebrated Christmas, the nativity, and suddenly we are presented with John the Baptist and an adult Jesus. The narrator in me wants to have some information about what has gone on in between. Luke tells something of it but the liturgical year races ahead allowing no time for that, so we, still recovering from the Christmas celebrations, have to try and make sense of the mature Jesus appearing for baptism by John.

The liturgical year presents the Baptism of the Lord so quickly because the Epiphany season is about the wonder, the glory and the mystery of what has begun in Bethlehem at the Nativity. In a liturgical wink, time telescopes, decades pass until amidst the speculative and curious multitude gathered at the Jordan to see John the Baptist we see Jesus who joins the throng for baptism. It is only after all this has been accomplished that we hear of the heavens opening and the manifestation of the Father and the Spirit to the Son. You could say that the liturgical year has accelerated the narrative pace to get us to this point so that we can begin the story proper – the ministry of Jesus – with this statement of divine verification as to who Jesus is.

For the Eastern Church this Feast of the Baptism is more important than the Nativity because it is understood as a great theophany, a full manifestation of Christ’s divinity as he publically begins His service to redeem the world. St John Chrysostom made the point in these words: “It is not the day when Christ was born that should be called Epiphany, but the day when he was baptised. Not through his birth did he become known to all, but through his Baptism. Before the day of Baptism he was not known to the people.” (Discourse 37 – On the Baptism of our Lord and Epiphany.)

That is a very different way of understanding the Epiphany and this Feast of the Baptism. It tilts our thinking away from the mystery of the Incarnation and focuses our attention instead on the actual service and ministry of Christ. But this is also charged with mystery: we hear the declaration of the Trinity of the Godhead, here made manifest; while Christ, by performing the act of ablutions established by the prophets and administered by John, establishes the New Testament sacrament of Baptism.

This different way of thinking can be seen in the traditional Eastern Orthodox icons of the Baptism. We see Jesus naked or just wearing a loin cloth, in the waters of the Jordan – but the design of the icon represents the baptismal waters ambiguously: the waters look also like a tomb. One quickly starts to realise that the icon is taking us into multiple worlds: the naked Christ is the new Adam; the waters are tomb and womb, pre-figuring crucifixion and resurrection; the chasm of the Waters can also be read as the descent into hell. The attendant angels in the icons look as if they are holding towels to receive and wrap the naked Christ when he emerges from the waters; other readers of icons will suggest that the attendant angels have their hands veiled as if to receive the Eucharist.

So if we are looking for a clear sequential narrative in Epiphany, not only does the liturgical year deny it, but Orthodox icons draw us into multiple and interconnecting narratives. No one reading will suffice; no single understanding of the mystery can exhaust what is happening. When we speak of Epiphany as bringing something to light or giving us a revelation, we realise that we are speaking metaphorically and from contemplation of the mystery we are drawn further in. Epiphany presents us with complex narratives and the season demands our passionate and imaginative engagement – it calls us to ‘travel with the Magi’, engage the mystery with all our being.

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