Baptism of Christ – 13 January 2019
Jesus has descended into river the to be baptised by John. He is clearly a young man, beardless. Jesus, who has no need of baptism, comes to the river, associating with the sinners that John baptises. As Jesus is baptised the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. As we look at this mosaic, John the Baptist stands on the ground to the right, dressed in camels hair, imposing his hand on Christ’s head, as was the custom of the ancient rite. The figure to the left as we look is a personification of the river Jordan. He leans against a spilled jar, from which the river flows, holds a marsh reed in his hand, while the red claws of a crab sprout from his head, all elements representing aquatic life. The figure of Jordan is included to reference the Old Testament, where the people of God passed through Jordan into new life in the promised land. The scene is bordered with a red laurel wreath, a sign of Christ’s victory over death.
This mosaic is participatory art, meant to be looked at during a service of baptism. Those being baptised stood, like Christ, in the water of the font. In the story of the baptism of Christ, as the dove descends the voice of the Father is heard ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’. The newly baptised would hear similar words spoken by the bishop, as they too are now children of God and loved. As Christ is baptised at the beginning of his public ministry, so the new Christians now live in service to God.
This mosaic is in the baptistery of Santa Maria Cosmedin, in Ravenna (493-526). At first Arian, it later became part of the catholic church. Some say that the young, beardless Christ might suggest an understanding of Jesus the Son inferior to the Father, but such depictions of Jesus were common in catholic churches through the first centuries.
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
In the waters of Jordan
penitents found forgiveness in the baptism of John.
There, Jesus your beloved child
was anointed with the Holy Spirit,
that he might bring us
to the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Send upon this water and upon your people
your holy, life-giving Spirit.
Bring those who are baptised in this water
with Christ through the waters of death,
to be one with him in his resurrection.
Sustain your people by your Spirit
to be hope and strength to the world.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be honour and glory, now and for ever.
Scottish Episcopal Church, Baptism Liturgy