Saint John the Baptist heading to the Wilderness,
Painted by Giovanni di Paolo (active by 1417 - died 1482),
Painted in 1454
Egg tempera on wood
© National Gallery, London
What did you go out into the wilderness to see?
When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to talk to the people about John. ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the breeze? No? Then what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? Oh no, those who go in for fine clothes and live luxuriously are to be found at court! Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet: he is the one of whom scripture says:
See, I am going to send my messenger before you;
he will prepare the way before you.
‘I tell you, of all the children born of women, there is no one greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he is. All the people who heard him, and the tax collectors too, acknowledged God’s plan by accepting baptism from John; but by refusing baptism from him the Pharisees and the lawyers had thwarted what God had in mind for them.’
Reflection on the Painting
Today’s reading follows on directly from the one we heard yesterday. St John the Baptist’s disciples received the answer to their question and went back to their master. Jesus in today’s reading starts talking to His audience about John and who he was. He warns them not to discount the Baptist as ‘just part of the scenery’ and simply foretelling Jesus’ mission. No. Jesus is praising St John so much that He gives him a firm place as the last of the prophets and a close, crucial ally of His own mission.
Jesus starts his sermon with the words ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see?’ Jesus thus begins by helping his audience remember what they had thought about John. Why did they go into the wilderness to see John? They went there to hear him preaching and to get baptised. Jesus reminds them of that and asks them whether they did it out of true conviction or were they simply going through the motions? In a way the same thing can be asked to us now: when we go to mass, do we simply go through the motions, or do we actively participate each time? Do we really treasure the sacrament we are receiving, or do we simply ‘spend time’ in church when we celebrate the eucharist?
Today’s painting by Giovanni di Paolo depicts St John leaving the city wall and heading into the wilderness, where he led a humble life as a prophet, preparing the way for Jesus. He is represented twice in our painting. The city looks lavish with fertile and manicured gardens outside. This is stark contrast with the rough mountains St John is heading to with the minimum of possessions in a cloth bundle on a stick thrown over his shoulder. St John chose to go to the desert. We make a choice to follow Jesus and to go to mass. It is always a choice. But how present are we truly when we are there?
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