On January 6th, Orthodox Christians commemorate the Great Feast of Theophany, the day when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, at the age of thirty, began His earthly Ministry by going to the Jordan River to be baptized by Saint John the Baptist. The name for the feast derives from the Greek word Θεοφάνεια, meaning “revelation of God”. This is the day when the mystery of the Holy Trinity was revealed to us for the first time.
This revelation is depicted in the icon of the Baptism of Christ; He descends into the waters of the Jordan river, as described by Matthew, and as He comes up from the water the great revelation of the Trinity occurs:
“And behold, the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)
The light from above signifies the presence and Glory of God, with only a small portion visible, indicating that the divine is far beyond our comprehension, although always very close to us. The white dove symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit. And just as after the great flood a dove returned to Noah with an olive branch, here too the dove symbolizes God’s reconciliation with mankind.
Christ stands in the Jordan, blessing the water with His right hand. St. John of Damascus explains that Christ was not baptized because He had need of purification, “but to identify Himself with our purification.” Through His baptism, Christ sanctified the waters of the world and became a model for our own baptism.
John the Baptist, also known as the Forerunner, the one who preached repentance and proclaimed the coming of the Lord, stands to the left with his hand over the head of Christ. He bows in reverence and looks up in awe at the revelation of God.
An axe laid at the root of a tree is left as a reminder of the words of Saint John to the Pharisees and Sadducees:
“And 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 angels on the right, although not mentioned in scripture, help maintain symmetry in the icon, an important principle in Byzantine iconography. They stand with their hands covered in humility before the divinity of Christ, approaching the mystery of God’s revelation and ready to serve the Creator of all as He ascends from the water.
The Jordan river, personified as a man, has turned around looking at Christ along with the fish reminding us of the verse from Psalm 113: “The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back.”
Through His baptism, Christ sanctifies the waters of the world and opens the way for our purification and regeneration through our own baptism. Through the act of immersion, we die to this world and are born again in the resurrection of Christ into eternal life. It is a “new birth by water and the Holy Spirit” into the Kingdom of God (John 3: 5)
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas