Friday, February 1, 2019

A New Look at an Old Prayer

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The “Flood Prayer” wasn’t always in our hymnals. Throughout most of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod’s history, in fact, it simply wasn’t there. Luther wrote the prayer as an addition to the Baptismal Rite as he removed other parts of less consequence, such as the blessing of the font. The Lutheran Service Book brought back Luther’s Flood Prayer and gave it prominence in the rite.

Last year I was commissioned to create a Baptismal triptych based on this prayer. The actual painting has been completed, but the piece still needs varnishing and construction of a frame. When finished, the triptych will hang behind the Baptismal font at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hankinson, N.D.

Like the prayer, imagery contained in the piece doesn’t follow a linear train of thought. The Baptismal prayer pulls together events which, to the world, may seem incongruous and out of sync; the Baptism of our Lord, the Flood, and the crossing of the Red Sea are not, on the surface at least, related at all. In similar fashion, I’ve layered symbolism that isn’t necessarily expected. In both the triptych and the prayer itself, however, it all is very intentional.

In the left panel, a conspicuous cross serves as a prow for the ark, even as the Church is sometimes referred to as The Ark. In the shadows beneath a scroll which bears the words of the prayer, skulls and rotting corpses point to the utter destruction wrought by the Flood, along with sin’s destruction given in Holy Baptism.

The central panel offers a view typical of many depictions of the Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan River. In a nod to Orthodox imagery, an adoring angel is also included. So too, distant trees, as representatives of all of creation, bow to the image of Christ. In the shadows, however, shadowy forms again lurk. This time a serpent coils at the unseen feet of Christ, who crushes its head.

The right hand panel fuses imagery in the crossing of the Red Sea. A set of three steps serve as an entrance into the sea, and the frightened Israelite throng crosses through, knowing they are pursued by forces greater than they. The natural elements, however, bow to the omnipotent power of the Lord, evidenced in piled up water and a consuming pillar of fire and smoke that bears not only a burning bush, but also the Name “YHWH.”

The idea that Holy Baptism is just a quaint old tradition or some kind of dedication of cooing newborns is soundly refuted not only by the pointed visuals, but also by Holy Scripture, to which the visuals point. It is well that Luther’s Flood Prayer has been reintroduced into the Baptismal Rite, for it points not only to the utter destruction of the Old Adam and our own sins, but it also points to the forgiveness and Salvation which the sacrament gives to all who are Baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Rough photo-composite of the unfinished "Baptismal Triptych."
(The scrolls, in reality, are of equal size and are in line horizontally, as are the horizons themselves.)
Copyright © Edward Riojas. No portion of image may be reproduced.