A few years ago, the Community of Jesus published a little book, Sacred Seeing: Praying with the Frescoes in the Church of the Transfiguration. As we approached the New Year, it seemed like a good opportunity to share this simple guide to praying with the art here in the church, especially for those of you who aren’t able to come and see it for yourselves. Over the next several weeks, we will be sharing the meditations from the book. We hope that it helps to enrich your prayer life as 2017 begins!
The Baptism of the Lord
Spend a few moments looking at the fresco image
What are you first impressions of this fresco panel?
What do you notice about this fresco that sets it apart form all the others?
Read the Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Some thoughts and questions to ponder
Jesus is flanked by John the Baptist and by a rock. What is their role as they are pictured this way? Perhaps the spandrels below give us some insight — Joshua 24:25-27 and Ezekiel 47:1,9
A single staff stands leaning, perhaps against a rock. Whose is it, Jesus’ or John’s? In either case, what is its purpose; why is it there?
What does John’s kneeling posture tell us? What does Jesus’ standing posture tell us?
The artist has presented Jesus wearing a simple white robe. Why?
Why, at this event, did the Holy Spirit appear in the form of a dove? (e.g. it could have been fire, as on the day of Pentecost).
Why do you suppose there is so much sky in this fresco? It almost looks like Jesus is standing on a mountain top rather than in a river valley.
What does this image say to you about your own baptism?
Lord, I don’t think enough about heaven,
about the ultimate end of my life…and its eternal purpose.
But here, looking up at you as John did,
I believe again that you are doing something unimaginable with me.
Before I leave this place,
I will sign myself once again with the waters of the font.
— a reminder of my own baptism
— a reminder that you have sealed me within your own heart, and stamped my heart with heaven’s address
— a reminder that, whether or not I can hear it right now, your (and my) Father’s voice has declared of me, “This is my beloved child;”
— a reminder that all the coarse fabric of my life will someday fall away, and I will exchange these garments of sorrow for robes of joy.
Until then, I will believe that you are doing something unimaginable with me.
Lord, in every way you have gone before me.
My steps were your steps, not so very long ago.
You descended to the Jordan valley,
and now your staff leads me there, too.
The descent is rough, sometimes slippery, and often lonely.
But the valley is where the river runs,
and the promise of new beginnings.
So, because you went there first, Lord, I will follow.
I will step into the healing stream,
bow my head under its rushing waters,
and look to see how you will come to me, again.
A Word from the Tradition
There is a mystery here. The pillar of fire went first through the Red Sea so that the children of Israel might follow without fear; it went first through the waters to open a way for those who were following. That event, then, was a symbol of baptism, as Paul tells us. Moreover, it is the same Christ who was at work then and now. Then he went through the sea, ahead of the Israelites, in the form of a pillar of fire; now he goes through the baptismal waters, ahead of the Christian people, in the pillar of his own body.
— Maximus of Turin, Sermons on the Epiphany (D.C. 466)
Image: ©2003 The Baptism of the Lord by Silvestro Pistolesi at the Church of the Transfiguration