Leonardo da Vinci did a magnificent painting of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. And it’s no surprise that he created it because that moment was a crucial point in the whole history of salvation. (The sole attribution of The Baptism of Christ to Leonardo is disputed; his then master, Andrea del Verrocchio, certainly painted some of it.)
John takes center stage three times in the readings at Mass for Advent, if only briefly. On the Second Sunday of Advent, he was the voice crying in the wilderness. The wilderness shows the state of the world into which he came. The following Sunday, John was preaching a message of repentance. Repentance involves people changing their hearts and minds, in fact, their whole being. And then on the Fourth Sunday, he exhorts them to share food if they have it. That’s one sign of the change they’ve undergone. They ought to share their cloaks too. It means soldiers not extorting money and being happy with their pay. Tax collectors similarly ought not to collect more than their due.
Since the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Savior has been born, grown up, and is ready to begin his public ministry. The beginning is marked by Jesus’ Baptism.
In da Vinci’s painting, John is pouring water on Jesus’ head, as they did in the Middle Ages. St. John Chrysostom explained that Jesus allowed himself to be baptized “that He might pass on the sanctified waters to those who were to be baptized afterwards.” He did not get baptized because he needed it, but so that he could sanctify the waters for all of those faithful to come – because the world needed it.
In the heavens above Jesus’ head, da Vinci has the dove fluttering as the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. Then, coming down from the heavens, above the dove are lines representing the voice of the Divine Father.
What the text of Matthew’s Gospel has done and what da Vinci has depicted is the event of the baptism of Jesus in human history. This scene is the convergence of the great mysteries of salvation: the Divine Trinity that is the Incarnate Divine Son; the Holy Spirit who brings about the Incarnation; and the Divine Father at whose will the whole plan of salvation unfolds.
As in classical icon painting, the Divine Father is represented by the lines at the top of the painting. The lines signify his voice. He is the hidden Father whose benevolence has set the history of salvation in motion using his “hands” – the Son and the Spirit. (Irenaeus) The mystery of the Trinity, something that is almost impossible to portray properly, comes out in Matthew’s inspired words and then through the artistic genius of da Vinci.
The Gospel words evoke the great mystery of God in a way that not even the great painter could hope to attain. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in an exhortation on Holy Scripture: “Those who know God’s word also know fully the significance of each creature.” There is something full of grace in our hearing the words. We hear the Scripture, and the doors open to meaning beyond all understanding. The truth of God comes bursting out of the words and envelops us. But all of this is not just so that we have a profound spiritual experience. It throws light on the meaning of everything around us.
That is what Benedict wanted us to see. Through the Divine Light, we gather the meaning of every person and thing around us. And the converse is also true: we do not know what these people and things really mean in any other way.
In the painting, Jesus is the center of everything. Benedict XVI continues, putting into words what that image suggests: “For if all things ‘hold together’ in the one [Jesus] who is ‘before all things’ (cf. Col 1:17), then those who build their lives on his word build in a truly sound and lasting way.” There at the center of the painting is the one in whom all things hold together.
He is not just one option among many possible sources of meaning. In this season we learn about the one who is the true source of the meaning of life. But as Vatican II reminded us, that world still has many problems because: “man painstakingly searches for a better world, without a corresponding spiritual advancement.” Letting that meaning in is the start of spiritual growth.
With His Baptism, salvation is up and running. And he is still with us beyond all question in the Holy Eucharist, in the hierarchy, and in the community. The Holy Spirit still flutters through our minds and hearts. And the divine Father lies hidden in impenetrable mystery that not even da Vinci dared to paint.
We are a long way from the Baptist’s first preaching on repentance. Yet the softening of the hardness of our hearts still only comes from the grace of Jesus the Savior. There is more – much more – to be seen about the life of John and the life of Jesus. In fact, we should note that John’s staff in the painting is topped by a cross. Obviously, there is more to come.
We must keep our eyes open – and stay awake.
*Image: The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1470-75 [Uffizi Gallery, Florence]
You may also enjoy:
St. John Henry Newman’s Thoughts on Baptism – from Parochial and Plain Sermons 7, no. 16
Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek’s Holy Communion, Conscience, and the Christian Life