John the Baptist,
Painted by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889),
Painted in 1849,
Oil on canvas
© Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand
In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judaea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said:
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’
Reflection on the painting
Our unusual painting depicting St John the Baptist is by Alexandre Cabanel, one of France’s most established 19th century painters. Cabanel painted this canvas after a trip to Rome. We can feel the highly stylised classical approach to painting. Saint John is painted as being a very energetic man, in the middle of preaching. Old and young followers are listening attentively on either side. On the left we see a staff shaped like a cross with a banner displaying the primary message of the prophet, ‘Agnus Dei’, the Lamb of God. He foretold and paved the way for Jesus, who is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Saint John’s mouth is slightly opened, we can almost hear his words. He is dressed with camel-hair and a leather belt round his waist as described in our Gospel reading. His arms are slightly over dramatised. One finger is pointing towards the heavens where Jesus is descending from; the other hand is pointing to earth, where Jesus will come into. When Cabanel completed this painting in 1849, it was very well received in Paris and had a deep impact on the art scene there.
Saint John tells us in our reading today to repent and sin no more. His message is very straightforward showing that St John was a no nonsense preacher and didn’t water down his message. There is not much time left, repent now! He is calling for real conversion. He doesn’t just want us to make some small adjustments or tweaks to our lives, no, John wants us to change the entire direction of our life. He called for a change of heart, for a radical transformation.
Advent is the time for transformation!
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