Adoration of The Child Jesus by St John the Baptist,
Painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553),
Painted circa 1535,
Oil on panel
© Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid
The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist is
Jesus spoke to the crowds: ‘I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm. Because it was towards John that all the prophecies of the prophets and of the Law were leading; and he, if you will believe me, is the Elijah who was to return. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen!’
Reflection on the Painting
I want to briefly look at Jesus’ phrase ‘yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist is’. At first this sounds rather enigmatic. First Jesus says, ‘I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen’ and yet Jesus continues to say that all of us are even greater than him… We are greater not because we are better than him, or more clever or more holy than he was, but because we have been more greatly graced. Through the Gospels, we know all about Jesus’ public life, His teachings, His resurrection, His displays of love, His miracles, etc… John the Baptist never saw these things, as he was executed by Herod early in the public ministry of Jesus. In that sense we have received a greater grace and we can spend our lives growing in greater appreciation of all we have received through the life of Jesus.
John’s ministry was to announce the coming of Jesus, but he himself didn’t live to see the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth of our Church. To that extent we are all more greatly blessed than John the Baptist was. So every day we can be grateful for the grace given to us by the example of Jesus.
Our painting by Luca Cranach the Elder is depicting the adoration of the child Jesus by St John the Baptist. We see little St John dressed in animal skin kneeling and pointing at Jesus, whilst holding a lamb, referring to John's characterisation of Christ as the Lamb of God and His sacrificial death on the Cross. Christ is holding the cross entwined with the serpent at the bottom: He came to deliver us from evil and sin. He is also seen crushing a skull with His left foot, because He came to conquer death.
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