January 6 is the traditional date celebrating Christ’s Epiphany (e)pifa/neia, “appearing upon [earth]”). By the third century, the Eastern Church celebrated the birth of Jesus on this date. Only late in the century, in the West, was a similar date adopted—December 25, presumably to combat the pagan festival of the Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the Sun-god, signifying the victorious return of the Sun at the Winter Solstice. Certainly the return of the sun conquering the darkness fit just as well the Birth of Jesus, and the seasonal imagery was widespread in early Christian hymns and commentary. A kind of cultural exchange seems to have ensued—Dec. 25 was adopted in the East, and Jan. 6 in the West—a transfer which must have taken place by the mid-fourth century, since both feast days are mentioned in context by Ephrem the Syrian (cf. his Hymn 5 on the Nativity, st. 13). In the West the celebration came to focus on the Visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-12), while in the East the emphasis was on the Baptism of Jesus—an association no doubt unfamiliar to most Western Christians today.
The Eastern Churches developed an exceptionally rich Baptismal tradition—far surpassing that of the West—and which can best be seen in the hymns and liturgy of the Syrian Church. The principal motif was the robe of glory—the glory with which Adam was originally clothed; this glory was lost (at the Fall), and then restored by Christ. This image seems to derive primarily from a variant reading of Genesis 3:21: instead of rou tont=k* (k¹¾nô¾ ±ôr, “garments of skin”) is read roa tont=k* (k¹¾nô¾ °ôr, “garments of light”)—nearly identical in sound and spelling. From this came the idea of “clothing of glory”, which passed through the Aramaic Targum and wider Jewish tradition, into the early Syrian Church. Ephrem the Syrian draws upon the image many times in his hymns. Here are a few examples (translations from S. P. Brock, The Luminous Eye, 1992 [Cistercian Publications], pp. 85-97):
Christ came to find Adam who had gone astray,
He came to return him to Eden in the garment of light. (Hymn 16 on Virginity, st. 9)
and it was Christ who was able to reclothe them
in the glory they had stripped off, thus replacing the leaves (Hymn 1 on the Nativity, st. 43)
The glory was restored specifically through the Incarnation, at two points: (1) by Christ taking on the ruined flesh of Adam (and Eve) in the womb of Mary, and Mary in turn being clothed with the glory of Christ (the ‘new Adam’)—
Eve in her virginity put on leaves of shame,
but Your mother, Lord, in her virginity
has put on a robe of glory
that encompasses all people,
while to Him who covers all,
she gives a body as a tiny garment. (Hymn 17 on the Nativity, st. 4)
In Bethlehem did king David put on fine linen,
but David’s Lord and Son
hid his glory there in His swaddling clothes.
These same swaddling clothes
provided a robe of glory for humankind. (Hymn 5 on the Nativity, st. 4)
And (2) when Christ was baptized, he ‘returned’ this glory within the waters, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit—
In baptism did Adam find
that glory which had been his among the trees of Paradise;
he went down and took it from the water,
put it on, went up and was held in honour in it.
(Ps.-Ephrem, Hymn 12 on Epiphany, st. 1)
As the daystar in the river,
the bright One in the tomb,
He shone forth on the mountain top
and gave brightness too in the womb;
He dazzled as He went up from the river,
gave illumination at His ascent. (Hymn 36 on the Church, st. 5)
All sorts of related images come together in the Syrian baptismal tradition—primeval light/glory, washing/cleansing, the brightness of oil for chrism/anointing, the Holy Spirit hovering over the water, the Spirit as fire hidden in the water, the Pauline motif of ‘putting on’ Christ (cf. Gal. 3:27: “for as many of you as have been dipped [i.e. baptized] into Christ, you have put [yourselves] in [i.e. put on] Christ”), and so forth. Especially noteworthy is the image of the Holy Spirit as light/oil/fire in the water—”In fire is the symbol of the Spirit, it is a type of the Holy Spirit who is mixed in the baptismal water”(Ephrem’s Hymn 40 on the Faith, st. 10); “…the Father rejoices, the Son exults, the Spirit hovers; the baptismal water is set aflame with fire and the Spirit” (Syrian Orthodox/Maronite service, cf. S. P. Brock, The Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, p. 12); “See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore You, see, Fire and Spirit in the river in which You were baptized; Fire and Spirit in our Baptism…” (Ephrem, Hymn 10 on the Faith, st. 17). This is a powerful echo of the words of John regarding Jesus: “…he will dip [i.e. baptize] you in the Holy Spirit and Fire”.
Interestingly, it is possible that this baptismal imagery has crept into the narrative of Jesus’ baptism: in the Old Latin MS (a) and one Vulgate MS, the following appears between Matthew 3:15 and 16—”And when Jesus was being baptized a great/tremendous light flashed from/around the water, so that all who had gathered there were afraid” (translation from Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek NT, 2d ed., p. 8). Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 88), and Epiphanius (Panarion 30.13.7) have similar references. Not surprisingly, the baptism of Jesus was also graphically described along these lines in the Diatessaron of Tatian, an early Gospel Harmony which was immensely popular and influential, especially in the Syrian Church (cf. the Commentaries of Ephrem [IV. §5] and Ish‘odad of Merv).
So, in the Eastern tradition, when the individual believer undergoes baptism, he/she puts on the same glory which Jesus left in the waters at His baptism, mystically, through the residing power of the Spirit. How many Christians being baptized today envision anything of the sort?