27 June 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
49, Thursday 27 June 2024

The icon of the Baptism of Christ in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The week began with the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IV, 23 June 2024), and Monday was the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Saint Cyril (444), Bishop of Alexandria and Teacher of the Faith.

I have a medical appointment this morning for an injection for my low levels of Vitamin B12. But a hospital appointment in Milton Keynes later in the morning in connection with my sarcoidosis, a condition I have been living with for 15 or 16 years at least, has been postponed until next week.

Before today begins I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon of the Baptism of Christ is third from the left among the 12 feasts depicted in the upper tier of the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

Matthew 7: 21-29 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you who behave lawlessly.’

24 “Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!”

28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these words, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes.

Saint John the Baptist baptising Christ in the waters of the River Jordan … a detail in the icon of the Baptism of Christ in the iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 12: the Baptism of Christ (Η Βαπτιcιc):

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

The third icon in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of the Baptism of Christ. The Greek words above read simply: Η Βαπτιcιc (‘The Baptism’).

The icon of the Baptism of Christ is based on the Gospel accounts in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan marks the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, and is also an Epiphany moment or revelation of the Holy Trinity, otherwise known as Theophany (Θεοφάνεια), which in Greek literally means a ‘revelation of God’.

The Baptism of Christ is a Trinitarian moment, when the Father, Son and Holy Spirit come together, acting as one, with distinctive personal roles: when Christ is baptised, heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ ‘in bodily form like a dove.’ And the voice of the Father comes from heaven declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Luke 3: 21-22).

The icon illustrates the paradox that Jesus Christ might be revealed as God through an act of submittal to a man, Saint John the Baptist. Although Saint John is baptising Christ, Saint John is shown bent over in reverence to the one he is baptising. At the same time, Saint John is turning his face towards heaven and beholding the miracle of the Theophany. Despite being the baptiser, he is not central to the scene.

Near to Saint John’s feet, a tree has an axe laid at its root, recalling his own words to those who came to him: ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matthew 3: 10).

On the bank of the River Jordan opposite Saint John the Baptist, angels wait to receive the newly baptised Christ and to clothe him.

So, on the left we see the forerunner of Christ, Saint John, with his words of repentance represented by the tree and axe; on the right, we see the angels waiting with reverence to accept the newly revealed Son of God. In the middle is the moment of revelation itself.

His head is surrounded by a cruciform halo inscribed with the letters Ο ΩΝ, ὁ ὤν (Ho On), ‘He Who Is’. These letters form the present participle, ὤν, of the Greek verb to be, with a masculine singular definite article, ὁ. A literal translation of Ὁ ὬΝ would be ‘the being one,’ although ‘He who is’ is a better translation. These words are the answer Moses received on Mount Sinai when he asked for the name of him to whom he was speaking (Exodus 3: 14a; see John 8: 58). In Hebrew, he who was speaking said Yahweh, which is also a present participle. Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible render Yahweh as Ὁ ὬΝ.

The initials above Christ’s shoulders are the Greek abbreviation IC XC, Ιησούς Χριστός (Iēsoûs Christós).

Jesus Christ, despite being submerged in the Jordan, is shown standing up and staring straight at us. His body is depicted as strong and beautiful, as it is understood classically, and in older icons he is depicted naked.

Christ appears almost as wide as the River Jordan itself; indeed: it is as though it is Jesus Christ, rather than the river, who cuts a swathe through the rocky wilderness on either side.

The icon of the Theophany, as well as depicting the Holy Trinity, also answers the question of Saint John the Baptist: I need to be baptised by you, and are you coming to me? The answer is given in what Jesus does with His hands. In Western art, Christ is shown as submitting to Saint John’s authority; in Orthodox icons, Christ’s hands are not shown in prayer, but in a sign of blessing.

Rather than the waters of Jordan cleansing Christ, it is Christ who purifies the waters. This is why in the bottom of many Theophany icons, little creatures appear to be fleeing from the feet of Christ. This is a reflection of the words of the Psalmist: ‘The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back’ (Psalm 114: 3).

The angels by the banks of the River Jordan in the icon of the Baptism of Christ in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Thursday 27 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Anglican support and advocacy for exiled people in Northern France.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update by Bradon Muilenburg, Anglican Refugee Support Lead in Northern France, the Diocese in Europe, the Diocese of Canterbury and USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Thursday 27 June 2024) invites us to pray reflecting on these words:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5: 4, NRSV).

The Collect:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us at the table of life and hope:
teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Gracious Father,
by the obedience of Jesus
you brought salvation to our wayward world:
draw us into harmony with your will,
that we may find all things restored in him,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Baptism of Christ … a new icon in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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