Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Three Epiphanies in One: The Nativity, the Visit of the Magi, and the Baptism of the Lord

We have just seen three feasts that are all interconnected, and all part of what we might think of as the greater season of Epiphany; these are Christmas, Epiphany (which tends to focus on the arrival of the Magi), and the Baptism of the Lord.

My understanding is that originally all would have been celebrated together as different aspects of a single celebration of Epiphany (and which is called Theophany in the Eastern Church). Over time the interest in different aspects of this mystery expanded, hymns were written were given their own days of celebration so that now they form a cluster of connected feasts. There are hints of all three in the icon of the first of these feasts, the Nativity.
All the ancient hymns of the liturgy explain the allegorical understanding of relevant Scriptural passages, and their connection to the feast. The traditional art of the Church simply reflects visually what is presented poetically in written form in such hymns. 

For example, anyone who prayed Morning Prayer on Christmas Day in conjunction with looking at the traditional icon would be able to decipher the image. First, by tradition, Our Lord was born in a cave, not a wooden stable. The dark interior of this cave is a symbol of heaven; Our Lady is a symbol of the throne of cherubim upon which the Resurrected Christ sits in heaven. In order to make this connection apparent visually, the baby Jesus is seen resting on a reclining figure of Our Lady in such a way that it suggests this throne. Instead of the transfigured Christ at its heart, we see the baby in swaddling clothes. This portrayal of a figure wrapped in cloth, in the dark heart of a cave, is intended to evoke a connection between the birth of Our Lord and His death in the tomb when he was wrapped in a shroud and embalmed with myrrh. Through this representation, the depiction of the birth of Christ directs our attention to His future death and resurrection. This is just a small part of the icon of the Nativity, and also just a small part of the detail that is referred to in the liturgical hymns sung on Christmas Day.

For example, here is part of the Ninth Ode sung at Morning Prayer:
Behold a strange and wonderful mystery: the cave is heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, the manger a noble place where reposes Christ the Uncontainable God.
Here is a description of the icon by the artist, Aidan Hart, in which he explains why he chose not to show the cave as heaven, but as the absence of God ready to receive Christ:
“The black cave points towards the harrowing of Hades, especially when the Lord is in white swaddling clothes to indicate the glorious white garments of the resurrection. The darkness of the cave presents the world waiting for the Sun of Righteousness, and as such represents the subjective ‘absence’ of God (though of course, God is present everywhere). Christ is ‘enthroned’ in the Virgin, and is dressed in His royal pallium, a King born of the Queen of heaven. The mountain is red since the Virgin is sometimes referred to as the bush that burns without being consumed. The mountains reach upwards, reflected in Paul’s verses in Romans 8:22-24. The Magi represent the Gentiles, the wealthy, and the learned, while the shepherd represents the Jews, the poor, and the unlearned. They come together in Christ, the King of kings, creator and owner of the universe, and source of all Wisdom.”
The visual sign of Our Lady as the Burning Bush creates a connection to the Baptism in the Jordan. The burning bush from which the voice of God spoke to Moses in the wilderness, and which was not consumed by the fire, is likened in liturgical hymns to the womb of the Virgin, containing our Lord without compromising her virginity. Both are likened to the three men in the furnace, described in the Book of Daniel, who were protected from the fire of the furnace. The “mechanism” of that protection is likened to a cooling dew sent by God to shield them. In the same way, it is said, a cooling dew protected the Virgin from being consumed by the Fire of the Spirit, so that She remained pure through Her conception, pregnancy, and birthing of Our Lord. That dew is a type also for the waters of baptism that maintain perfection and clean all imperfection away. In the Baptism in the Jordan, Christ imparts the cleansing power of that holy dew to the waters of the Jordan, so that we, through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, might be cleansed and protected from the fire of the Holy Spirit in the same way.

Icon reproduced with the permission of the artist: aidanharticons.com

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