A Message from Father Nick 43

Facing the Future

This Sunday’s feast of the Lord’s Baptism takes us from Christmastide into Ordinary time. Nevertheless, traces of Christmas will remain with us until we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord (“Candlemas”) on 2nd February, forty days after Christ’s birth. We go forward carrying the mystery into a new calendar year. And it can become for us a real journey of love.

One of our close companions during Advent and Christmas has been John the Baptist and he too will remain with us as we go forward. We do not appreciate John as our ancestors did. They honoured him with Our Lady as one of the two great intercessors for the Church.

Luke makes a prelude for his gospel from the story of John’s conception and birth, asking us to see that the course of John’s life anticipates at every stage what will happen to his Master. In fact, the real beginning of all four gospels is John’s baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. It is moving to remember that the Dead Sea plain is the lowest point on the surface of the earth.

The Baptism of Jesus is the subject of our first picture. It is by the 15th century Renaissance master, Piero della Francesca, and is now kept in the National Gallery in London. It shows a moment when the world itself seems awed and still. “The scene, set in a vast sloping landscape, is bathed in the clear light of morning. The compelling, statuesque figure of Christ represents the physical and symbolic centre of the composition… The glow surrounding the dove highlights the expression of pure concentration on the face of Christ. Piero has created a sacred, untouchable sphere for Christ: even John the Baptist appears to withdraw as he is about to anoint him, as if unable to cross the divide between the earthly and divine.” The story begins with a scene of transcendent beauty.

Our second painting is very different and takes us closer to the end of that story. This is the death of John the Baptist, depicted by our old friend, Michelangelo Merisi (better known as Caravaggio). It is an enormous painting, completed in or around 1605 when Caravaggio was a fugitive in Malta, and it conveys anything but stillness and awe.
Rather, it has a low-key, matter of fact quality – a kind of world-weariness. John’s execution, like that of Jesus still to come, is a task for men who are familiar with such things. These are technicians in violence, dispatching the saint as un-dramatically as they would perform any other of their allotted tasks. One man gives advice by pointing; another prepares his knife for the final act of severing John’s head (Caravaggio, no stranger to violence, has signed his name in John’s blood). Two women complete the group. One raises her hands to her temples– the only one to register emotion. Two other figures watch in curiosity through a window behind them.

The world, alas, will always contain such skills of violence, such varying degrees of complicity – such basic failure to acknowledge God’s truth. Even so, for John and for us, that truth prevails. In the continuing light of Christmas, may it fill us this year with new insight, courage and hope.