John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”… At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region… were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Mt 3:1-2; 5-6)
We cannot say with certainty that there are no famous artistic images of John the Baptist baptizing the people of Judea who came to him acknowledging their sins; yet if there are such works, they are hard to find. There are many other masterfully painted images of John: sitting or standing alone, playing as an infant, spending time with the Holy Family, venerating the Blessed Mother, preaching, and even being beheaded, yet few to none of John baptizing the repentant sinners. This is most probably because the primary focus of the many images of John baptizing are of him baptizing Jesus. The image of the “Baptism of Jesus by John” has a preeminent place in Christian art.
Perhaps it is only natural to not portray in Christian art the early penitential baptisms of John since these anointings were not in their own right supernatural (Mt 3:11). However, John’s most important role in salvation history – after being the prophetic voice announcing the coming of the Lord – is preparing the peoples for repentance. This repentance is necessary for sustaining a life of grace (Lk 13:3). Two-thousand years later, John’s ministry still plays a vital role in our liturgy reminding us of the call to repentance during the season of Advent.
John’s call is the call to conscience. It is a call to the self-examination of one’s soul. We all need to do this examination with regularity. Deep in our hearts there is a desire to do this since the soul unceasingly desires to be close to God under the divine’s sincere and intimate counsel. In accord with this, the heart yearns for forgiveness and peace. However, John can only take the human heart so far. He must eventually hand it over to Jesus (Jn 3:30).
On this 2nd Sunday in Advent we place on our bulletin cover a baroque work, John the Baptist Peaching (1665), by the Italian Mattia Preti which may have been painted in Malta after Preti was made a Knight of Malta. Preti was very much influenced by the Tenebrism of Caravaggio. Tenebrism comes from the Italian “tenebroso” (dark or gloomy) and this style is a baroque technique that mysteriously delivers salvific light into the seeming bondage of a looming darkness.
The most illuminating aspect of this work is the opening of the sky in the upper left part of the frame (which John points out). This aperture sends light through the receptacle of John’s staff which bears the Latin phrase, Behold the Lamb of God, while the banner itself reaches out and clings to the fractured stump of Jesse (Is 11:1). John’s staff acts a pointer, touching the lamb at the bottom of the scene representative of Christ. The people standing about are in postures of praise while John looks outward beyond the scene toward us, reminding us to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mt 3:2).
John points to Jesus Christ during Advent; for Jesus alone carries our hearts from repentance to forgiveness to peace.
-Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services