December 12, 2021 Lectionary Texts — Year C
This week we are again exploring a Christian icon piece. I will be bringing many icons into the Visio Divina space. I have been and always will be a lover of history and old stuff. For a time, I seriously considered majoring in archaeology in college. We have so very much to gain in studying the art at the roots of the Christian tradition. The Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert of Egypt, the world’s oldest monastery spanning 17 centuries, is a treasure trove holding some of Christianity’s oldest works of art. Our icon today of John the Baptist lives there.
John the Baptist icons are also known as The Angel of the Desert. One of the first things you may have noticed about John here is that he has wings. It is important to remember that icons are not illustrations. They are rather symbolic visualizations of important Biblical truths and concepts. You could say they present Scripture in a visible rather than audible way. John is depicted with wings to signify that he is God’s appointed messenger. In the Greek texts, the word angelos is used for John which has the meaning of both angel/messenger and since angels in icons have wings to signify that they have swiftly and miraculously come directly from the presence of God, John bears this symbol also. I don’t know of other prophets being depicted with wings, so there is real importance to John’s role as a messenger being shown here.
John the Baptist icons can also be called The Forerunner. This title of course comes from the words of the messenger angel who visits John’s father, Zacharias: “he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God.” In the icon we see John’s head in a chalice on the ground — the symbol signifying his own execution prior to that of Christ’s. I suspect, though I did not find it mentioned in any of my sources, the small bird looking very much like a killdeer (who run fast over the ground – quite common here in South Dakota) is also a symbol of this forerunner role. Other icons of John may show a running deer.
Looking at John himself you will note unique elements to him are the messy hair and the shaggy fur garment. He gestures a blessing with his right hand and holds a scroll that usually reads (I do not know what this icon specially says): Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is come near OR I saw and witnessed concerning him, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” John is also holding a staff with a cross at the top – this is a martyr’s staff. John’s eyes are fixed on heaven the source of his message. We see the hand of God gesturing a blessing toward him.
Quite common to icons of John the Baptist as seen here is a small desert shrub or tree with an axe. This image rises out of John’s statement found in Luke 3:9.
Questions to help you explore:
What do you notice about this work?
What do you see? What do you feel?
What message is John inviting you to hear?