Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Baptism of the Lord


 The Baptism of Christ
El Greco, 1608-14
Hospital of San Juan Bautista de Afuera, Toldedo
The painting was completed after the artist's death by his son Jorge Manuel

Image: sunsite:icm.edu.pl

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and the end of most of the formal liturgical Christmastide celebrations, barring their final conclusion at Candlemas on February 2nd.

As it is observed in the Novus Ordo the Feast, on the Sunday after Epiphany (or after the Sunday of Epiphany) dates from 1970. In the Vetus Ordo it is assigned to January 13th, the old Octave day of Epiphany, by both the 1955 and 1962 Missals, and indeed as a separate feast from the traditional threefold celebration of the manifestation of Christ at Epiphany ("Three wonders mark this day...") is a creation of Pope Pius XII in 1955. For that reason he re-used the Epiphany propers for the new festal observance he developed from it, and such an addition seems to me to fall within the range of things which can and should be legitimately added to the liturgy. This is the proper development of liturgy analogous to the proper development of doctrine.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition the Great Theophany is celebrated as one commemoration. As Kurt Sherry pointed out on the Medieval religion discussion group the other day, the western feast of Epiphany commemorates the adoration of the Magi, which the eastern church commemorates on Christmas itself.  In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, January 6 is the feast of Theophany, which is the Baptism of Christ. The Baptism is called Theophany because it is the manifestation of the Holy Trinity (the Incarnate Son, the voice of the Father, and the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove). Thus, an Orthodox church named Holy Trinity should (there are some parishes that violate the "rules" and use Rublev's Trinity or one of the "heretical" depictions of "an old man, Christ, and a bird") have the Baptism of Christ in the position to the left of the Theotokos when facing the iconostasis. Another member of the list, who is Orthodox, added the point that although Pentecost is not taken to be so explicitly Trinitarian in the West, it is celebrated as THE revelation of the Trinity among the Orthodox. Theophany -- also called Epiphany in Orthodox circles -- and Transfiguration are both celebrated as Trinitarian revelations that are consummated by Pentecost.

The Eastern Fathers had much more to say, it would appear on the basis of the magisterial and exuberant texts in the Office of Readings for this week, about the Baptism than their Western counterparts. So establishing a Feast of the Baptism to point out its enormous significance and drawing direct attention to it as a distinct event rather than subsuming it in the visit of the Magi on January 6th seems right and fitting. In so doing the abolition of the Octave, by Pope Pius, was in part undone by Pope Paul.

There is a history of the feast day here.

The painting by El Greco conveys much of the exultation of Orthodox writers about the Baptism and its significance which the artist conveyed to the Catholic Counter-Reformation world in his unique vision of things heavenly and earthly bound inextricably together.

A revised and extended version of my post from this Feast last year

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