“Through the waters of death into a new covenant life with God.” Think of the deeply biblical historical significance of this phrase! Think of Creation from chaos into beautiful order… And then, of its repetition in the Flood experience of Noah and his family. Think Moses and Israel’s Red Sea passage through the waters of death into a new covenant life with God. Think of Israel’s symbolic journey across the Jordan, re-living this pattern. And then think of John the Baptizer inviting sons and daughters of the covenant to come across the Jordan, and then re-enter the Promised Land as if for the first time. In each case, there is a death to one condition or circumstance, and a birth to another.
This theme lies at the heart of the readings we hear during this recent extended season. And they are expressed beautifully but also mystically in the central panel of Peter Koenig’s great painting, Christmas—Epiphany.
Notice the lower righthand portion of the panel. We find Jesus and John, with Jesus submitting to the waters of Baptism. It’s an event that begs a question. For why would Jesus be baptized? In Peterson’s The Message translation, Matthew tells us that ‘John objected to the prospect of it, saying “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!” But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it.’ Jesus saw the Big Picture. The pattern was being fulfilled. Out of the waters of a kind of death, a spiritual death, would come a new birth for God’s people.
Peter Koenig beautifully depicts this in a very subtle way. If you look closely at the bottom right corner of the panel, you will see some skulls lying at the river bottom among the reeds, below the baptismal waters. You may recall seeing a skull at the base of the cross in Orthodox icons of the Crucifixion, as well as in western art. This represents Adam and our fallen human nature. Yet these skulls may also represent those Egyptians who perished in the waters of the Red Sea, when Israel was delivered into a new covenant life with God.
Based on the Gospels, we know that Jesus was baptized in the waters of the Jordan. But in this painting, other biblically significant water is represented. At the center, Koenig depicts John’s Revelation-vision of the Lamb on the throne who is the source of Living Water. Around this throne, the faithful departed and the saints who have gone before are gathered in praise and adoration. Koenig then connects this theme of living water with the Cana wedding story, where we hear of water stored in large jars for the rites of purification. There, Jesus performs his first miracle, turning this holy water into wonderfully good wine.
Here we see the mystical connection between the Old Testament and the New, and between Baptism and Eucharist. All this is relevant for every one of us. We are hearers of the Gospel record of Jesus’ Baptism. Hearing this story –really hearing it– we are challenged to live into it, and as more than admirers of either Jesus or John. We are called to go through the same waters with him, the waters of death to our old ways of life. And with him, we are lifted up to live into a new covenant life with God, in God’s new Jerusalem.
As John puts it in the Revelation: “Then I saw… the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ … Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life’.”
The image above is Peter Koenig’s, Christmas-Epiphany. This post is based on my homily for my last homily as Rector of Grace Church, Grand Rapids MI, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, January 12, 2020, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.
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