Monday, January 6, 2014

A Theological Analysis of the Iconography of the Theophany / Epiphany

By Hieromonk Silouan Peponakis

The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River by John the Forerunner is also called an "epiphany". The word "Theophany" (manifestation of God) comes from the apostolic passage: "God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory (1 Tim. 3:16), and is more related to the Nativity of Christ. The word "Epiphany" (appearance) comes from the apostolic passage: "For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people" (Tit. 2:11), and refers to the Baptism of Christ, because it was then that people came to know the grace of the Godhead.

With the appearance of the Holy Trinity and the confession of the Honorable Forerunner we have the official confession that the Son and Word of God is "of the Trinity", who was incarnated for the salvation of the human race from sin, the devil and death.

It is known that in the ancient Church on this day, January 6th, the feasts of Christmas and Theophany were celebrated together. These feasts were divided in the fourth century, and Christmas was transferred to December 25th. Theophany is also called the Feast of Lights due to the baptism and illumination of catechumens as well as the display of lights.

The icon shown above is a fresco from the Sacred Church of Protaton in Karyes of the Holy Mountain, by the paintbrush of the leading artist Michael Panselinos. At the top of the icon there is a hand that blesses in glory. Below this the Holy Spirit is illustrated "like a dove" and just below this Christ is in the waters of the Jordan being baptized by John the Forerunner, who is not looking at Christ, but has his gaze in the heavens from where he hears the voice of the Father in the Holy Spirit bearing witness: "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased."

This depiction is very important, because here we have the revelation of the Holy Trinity to Saint John the Forerunner. From here we will make much reference to the book by His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos titled The Despotic Feasts. The manifestation of the Triune God to man shows among other things that only man is an earthly initiate and worshipper of the Holy Trinity, and the only one created by the Triune God in His image. Saint Gregory Palamas teaches that animals do not have a mind and reason but an animated spirit, that is not self-subsistent, which means that when animals die they lose their spirit, since they don't have essence but only energy. However, man has a reasonable mind and a spirit that animates attached to the body, which is why he alone is in the image of the tripartite God.

Saint Gregory Palamas interprets the phrase "in Whom I am well-pleased" as how the grace of God is one, but sometimes it acts in good pleasure, since God wills it, and sometimes by concession. God knew that the fall of man would take place, and did not create him for this but separated him, because God Himself willed it for man. God does not abolish the freedom of man. So there is the will of God according to good pleasure and the will of God according to concession. With this in mind the affirmation of the Father: ""This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased" shows that the incarnation was the will of God according to good pleasure.

The testimony of God the Father for His Son shows that the Son is the "radiance of the glory of the Father", since there is a common essence and energy in the Triune God.

The appearance of the Holy Spirit "like a dove" shows us that the Holy Spirit is not a dove, but He appeared as a dove because the Holy Spirit is not created but uncreated like the other persons of the Holy Trinity. That the Holy Spirit together with the voice of the Father sat on Christ shows that the persons of the Holy Trinity are consubstantial, and it also shows that the Messiah was not Saint John the Forerunner, but Christ.

It is known that Christ had no need for baptism, since the baptism of John led people to become aware of their sins. Christ, writes Saint John of Damascus, was not baptized because He had need for purification, but "to bury human sin by water," to fulfill the Law, to reveal the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and finally, to sanctify "the nature of water" and to offer us the form and example of Baptism. Christ was baptized to crush the heads of the dragons in the water, because it was believed that demons dwell in the water. This is why we see in the icon of the Baptism water monsters that have turned their backs on Christ because of the fire of the deity. Christ was baptized to wash away sin and bury the entire old Adam in the water.

Many icons of the Baptism in conjunction with the hymnography of the feast present Christ completely naked, thus indicating how Christ humbled himself for the sake of people. He became naked that He may clothe man in an incorruptible garment.

Another main person who took part in the baptism was Saint John the Baptist. He was made worthy by God to hear the voice of the Father, and to see the Word of God and the Spirit of God. The "and behold the heavens were opened to Him" of Matthew the Evangelist, and the "he saw the heavens tear apart" of Mark the Evangelist indicate the superiority of the uncreated over the created, as well as the restoration of an "open" relationship between God and man after its "closure" due to sin.

Many things can be said based on the teachings of the Fathers of the Church regarding a theological analysis of the icon of the Baptism. My main point though is that Christ gave us each the possibility to acquire the Grace of sonship, a Theophany in our personal life.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Επεφάνη η χάρις του Θεού η σωτήριος", December 2003. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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