In this icon in the reredos of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Denver, Jesus is being baptized by John the Baptist. John’s arm is seen over Jesus’ head with a bowl of water and Jesus is pale, vulnerable and (though perhaps I am projecting) somewhat frightened of the future. His abdomen is exposed, soft, gentle, unguarded and unprotected even by ribs.
It would be easy to so super-spiritualize Jesus that the Jesus of our imaginations is the Jesus of the imperial church. It would be easy to accept the Roman Catholic notion of a powerful, commanding Jesus handing keys to Peter so that authority and power are passed one one to the next to the next. It would be easy to see Jesus as a commander-in-chief, with clear lines of authority from God to Jesus to Apostle to Disciple to Bishop to Priest, to Deacon, to Executive Secretary to upstairs maid.
But I wonder about that. In this image Jesus is soft. His skin is delicate and fragile and he seems like a strong breeze might bruise him. Was he an imperial priest, clothed in layers of religious undergarments and religious clothing – the black shirt, the black cassock, the white alb, the golden chasuble, the heavy cope, the glittering jewels? Or was he a man, with a loin cloth to protect his dangly bits? If he was God, and I believe he was and is, then he has great power to effect change. But was it imperial? Was it power-based? Was it with massive stone palaces and great armies? Was it with layers and layers of levels and levels of authority and titled minions in a royal household of clergy, or was it a man, every bit a frightened as you and me by life, by being in a body made mostly of water and some calcium, vulnerable to disease, tomorrow? If so, then I can identify with that God-man. And I believe he understands how vulnerable and frightened I sometimes feel.
In the stained glass and icons of this image, I think we sometimes forget that there were no fonts, no silver shells, no candles, no vestments, no choirs. Just cold water, a smelly, crazy baptist and some hope that this all might one day turn out ok against all odds; no matter what happens along the way. What if the water in which Jesus was baptized was not heated gently by the altar guild? What if it was cold?