Before we continue with our symbolic mapping of the man born blind, and because we are delving deeper into the Genesis creation narrative, let us shift our focus to that creation narrative. We are going to rely heavily on the Polyeleos (Ps 135 LXX), sung during the festal and Sunday Matins service, and use the Theophany icon as our guide.
The Theophany icon is separated into three main sections: the far right, center, and far left. On the far right we have the angels ministering to the Lord, who is being baptized in the center, with John the baptist, and sometimes Ss. Andrew the First-Called and John the Theologian behind him, on the far left. In some versions there is a bush with an axe, symbolizing the way St John will die. Above Christ is the Spirit descending like a dove, with fish below His feet.
You will see that each of these three sections will be discussed twice, as each aspect represents two distinct yet linked together days of creation. Days one, two, and three of creation mirror days four, five, and six. This is because God first creates the place. Then in the corresponding day He fills that previously made place with its suitable creature.
On the first day God said Let there be Light. He did not create the Light, as previously discussed. This is the Uncreated Light of His Glory, and also a symbol of the Logos Himself. In the icon, the Logos qua Logos can only be depicted as Incarnation (which is presented in the middle of the icon). So we are unable to present the Logos as pre-incarnate Logos in the icon. But we do have the angels, that is, the dwellers of heaven on the left side of the icon. And the Polyeleos records this mystically for us:
O give thanks unto the God of gods; O give thanks to the Lord of lords (Ps 135:2-3) In the old testament, angels are often referred to as “gods.” This is especially true of the fallen angels, the demons, being referred to as “gods.” Both these statements, the creation of “gods” and “lords,” comes before verse 5: To him that by wisdom made the heavens. The psalmist has recorded the creation of angels prior to the creation of the heavens as a foreshadowing and symbol for both the first day of creation and the Logos, since the Logos is invisible and cannot be depicted, nor is the Logos created.
On the second day, God separated the waters from the waters, and places between them a firmament. This is the center of the Theophany icon. Christ is standing above waters, with the waters above, that is the natural sky.
On the third day, God brings forth dry land with all suitable kind of vegetation. This is the far left of the icon. It exemplifies why I prefer the Theophany icon with the bush and the axe, since the bush symbolically stands for the suitable kind of vegetation. That the land is “dryland” is not some inane detail either. Dryland is important since dryland is barren until it is watered. The Polyeleos continues its support with verse 6: To him that stretched out the earth above the waters, that is, God brought forth dry land.
Days four, five, and six God will fill their corresponding day (one, two, or three) with the suitable creature. On the first day there is Light, which can only mystically be represented by foreshadowing what will fill it, that is, the angels. And we see on the far right of the Theophany icon the angels ministering to the Lord. They now symbolically represent the created lights, the sun, moon, and fixed stars. The Polyeleos continues with verses 7-9: To him that made great lights (7); The sun to rule by day (8); The moon and stars to rule by night (9).
On day five, God fills the seas with fish and the skies with birds. The Theophany icon has fish, and the Spirit descending in the form of a dove. So the dove stands in for both the Holy Spirit and factual birds filling the skies. Here the Polyeleos takes a decidedly interesting turn: To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn. (vs 10)
Egypt is a symbol of hades, of sin, and of death. And as discussed previously with the Light created for the blind man, washing in the pool of Siloam, the separation of the waters on the second day of creation, is a symbol of our ignorance, sin, and death. This opens, literally, the gateway for the creation of Man, which is the sixth day of creation. For a man is not merely who has hands and feet as a man, but who practices piety and virtue with boldness ~St John Chrysostom. Like the revelation of dry land after the separation of the waters, Man is revealed after the purgation of our ignorance, sin, and death.
What then is the smiting of the firstborn? Mark 11:21 records a curious case where the Lord smites and curses a fig tree. St Cyril of Jerusalem, in his catechetical lectures, records the fig leaf as symbolically representing our fallen nature, since the fig leaf was that which Adam and Eve clothed themselves with when they knew they were naked. The Lord cursing the fig leaf is the Lord cursing the curse of Adam.
If Egypt is a symbol of hades, of sin, and of death, then Egypt’s “firstborn” is the original disobedience of Adam in the Garden. Christ smites the firstborn of Egypt, that is the original disobedience of Adam; He places a curse on the curse; He smites death; He destroys death by death.
And brought out Israel from among them. (vs 11) Christ is the firstborn of a new creation. This new creation is not like that of Egypt, of ignorance, of sin, and of death. This new creation is of God. He washes our sins away in the waters of His baptism. We have now come back to the middle of the Theophany icon, to Christ, and to the day the Lord rested from His work: the seventh day.
From here we will focus the rest primarily from the Polyeleos. We will see that some of the rest of this psalm is simply repeating themes, but there is some valuable new information as well. With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm. (vs 12) There are a number of symbolic understandings of this verse, but I will focus in on only two. The most poignant time when God using His hand is mentioned comes in Exodus with Moses on mount Sinai.
And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by. (Ex 33:22) Here Moses has begged the Lord to allow him to see Him. And so, with a stretched out arm, the Lord covers Moses face and passes by. But this Exodus verse gives us our second symbolic meaning behind stretched out arm, when it says, I will put thee in the cleft of the rock. The cleft of the rock is the symbol of Adam’s side where the rib was taken to form Eve. This makes this resurrectional, since the rib of Adam which formed Eve, is a symbol of the Theotokos who will bring about Man’s salvation, that is, the birth of our Lord. This is a second symbolic understanding of verse 12 in the Polyeleos.
Verses 13-15 are a retelling of the Exodus story, and repeating the mystical telling of the passion of our Lord, of the harrowing of hades, and of our salvation. While also being a retelling of the Exodus story, verse 16 To him which led his people through the wilderness, speaks to what was previously discussed about darkness on the face of the deep. (Gen 1:2)
If darkness and ignorance are on the face of the depth, then led his people through the wilderness is God leading His people out of ignorance and out of hades, that is another telling of day six to day seven, and of fallen man to the baptism of Christ and restoration of mankind. I am reminded of this verse from Proverbs: When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth. (Proverbs: 8:27)
Having already discussed how verses 2 & 3, the God of gods and Lord of lords, is a telling of the angels and fallen angels, the demons, verses 17-20 are a retelling of how God overthrows the demons. The great and famous kings and Sihon and Og symbolically represent the principal’s and powers of this world, that is, the demons.
And gave their land for an heritage. (vs 21) If the great and famous kings stand for the fallen angels, then their land is where they dwell: heaven. Heaven is given to the righteous. This is the final day of “creation,” the eighth day. Even an heritage unto Israel his servant (vs 22) continues the idea of Israel as Adam and sixth day of creation (vs 11 above), but also of God’s servants, who have put on the wedding garment of Christ’s baptism, that is, Theophany.
The remaining verses of the Polyeleos are symbolically self evident, redeeming us from our sins (vs 23-24), giving us the Eucharist (vs 25), and general thanksgiving (vs 26). But I want to finish this thought by quoting a different psalm which is also read at vigil, specifically vespers, which is psalm 103.
Psalm 103: 10 LXX
between the mountains will the waters run.
If we map the overarching visual of the Theophany icon, we have Christ in the center with the rising mountains on both left and right. Between these mountains will the waters of Christ’s baptism run. This mapping may come as a reminder, since I’ve discussed it before. In Symbolism of Kidron Brook, I discussed how Christ comes down from the Temple, the mountain on the left of the “Trinity” icon, descends into the Kidron valley, in the center of the “Trinity” icon, and ascends into the Garden of Gethsemane, which is the mountain on the right side of the “Trinity” icon.
The overarching visuals of the Theophany and “Trinity” icons are precisely the same. As Alcuin of York stated, Christ descends into the Kidron Brook, to drink the brook of His passion. This is also Christ descending into the waters at His baptism, as St Paul tells us that which we must do: we are united into His death, in the hope of being united into His Resurrection.
I have brought up psalm 103 not only to help map the Theophany icon, but since is read at vespers, like the Polyeleos read at Matins, which both liturgically happen prior to the Divine Liturgy. Both of these psalms, Polyeleos read at Matins, psalm 103 read at Vespers, are read at services which play with both light and dark, day and night, that is “creational” imagery. In the Byzantine tradition, Matins, that is the imagery of “day and night,” bleeds into the Divine Liturgy, that mystical service of only light, the Divine Liturgy being mystically the eighth day of creation, when the priest shouts:
Glory to thee who has shown us the Light!