“John the Baptist in the Wilderness”
Tiziano Vecellio (Titian)
(Active about 1506 - Died 1576)
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) is well known for painting flaming redheads, so much so that Titian red is a recognised hair colour.
“John the Baptist in the Wilderness” has the traditional elements of a simple staff in crucifix form which is interesting because John had already been executed by the time of Christ’s crucifixion and the cruciform staff begs a question as to whether it is used by the artist to link to Christ or it was a common form of staff. It looks too flimsy to have been much used as a prop or aid to walking, so maybe it is symbolic and was probably artistic licence rather than accurate portrayal.
The clothing does match the descriptions recorded in the Gospels in being rustic and basic, not fine clothes which his family would have worn, but which probably indicates John’s rejection of his old life and adoption of a simpler life in the service of God, where luxury and ornament were redundant.
John is portrayed as having wild hair, again as a result of his lifestyle but a strong athletic figure, which may have been a consequence of living rough.
In the bottom left corner of the painting is a lamb, representing the Lamb of God. In the distance is the River Jordan where John would baptise Christ.
John has his right arm outstretched and his hand pointing out to Jesus.
John stands by a rock and there are no buildings or other signs of humanity in the painting but the landscape looks more park like than wilderness.
The oil on canvas painting is displayed in Gallerie dell'Accademia, in Venice.
Luke 3: 1-6
“1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’”.
Luke now transitions from writing about the birth and early years of Jesus to the events immediately preceding the beginning of his mission. And here we are clearly told to “Prepare the way of the Lord”- to do whatever we can to be ready for His Coming.
Since Advent is a time of preparation for the Lord so that “All flesh will see God’s salvation”, we find in this passage the proclamation of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.
However, it is significant to notice an important contrast: All the way through to Chapter 39 in the Book of Prophet Isaiah it is about judgement and wrath. Then, in Chapter 40 the tone changes from doom and gloom to hope and healing for God’s People, the text that is quoted here, which is a very fitting introduction for our Season of Advent.
This Gospel reading begins with a long list of rulers -not as we might expect with a call to repentance from John the Baptist. Luke is very thorough in setting the historical scene for the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist.
The first sentence is quite majestic and reflects the ancient tradition that began the Gospel story with the ministry of John by the River Jordan.
In a way it contrasts human kingdoms with the Reign of God. The People of God owe their allegiance first and foremost to God. It is the Word of God that sets the ministry of John in motion. And John has been commissioned to “Prepare the way of the Lord”- not of Caesar or of any other pretender.
The call of John is patterned on that of the Prophets. He is the last of the Prophets of the Old Testament, in a sense serving as a bridge to the New. As the Prophets of old prepared the way of the Lord that led the People from Egypt to the Promised Land, so now, through his presentation of Jesus, John leads the New People of God into the Messianic Kingdom. Even though we have just read of one Emperor, one Governor, three Tetrarchs and two Religious High Priests, - quite a list of people who are important and prestigious in the eyes of the world -, the Word of God is not addressed to them. It comes to a relatively unknown man living in the wilderness, as Scriptures says: “The last shall be first!”.
The Gospel of Luke extends the quotation of the Prophet Isaiah further than the Gospels of Mark or Matthew in order to incorporate the promise of universal salvation that is so important to Luke and his Gentile readers.
The journey through the wilderness was an integral part of the mission of John the Baptist. From about 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. men and women who wanted to hear from God would go out and live in the desert, some of them for years on end. This was the case of Abraham, Moses, Elijah and even Jesus.
John challenges us to consider the desert not just as a place of desolation but one of hope. God is calling us to leave behind our oppressors and head home through the wilderness. John actually preaches that this first step on the journey to freedom is a baptism of repentance. And repentance means far more than saying ‘I’m sorry. Please forgive me’. Repentance is more like a change of mind and heart –an inner transformation.
We should not be afraid of going into the wilderness –we have a wilderness inside us, a place of testing-. It is a place of encounter with ourselves, to discover our inner demons and invite God to purify our intentions. We should not be afraid of going into this wilderness since it is there that we will be able to hear the Word of God speaking to us.
Preparing the way of the Lord requires overturning the world as we know it: John the Baptist quotes Isaiah to describe the transformation that must take place. Metaphorically John is telling the Jewish People to clean up their act. And drawing a parallel with a description of road constructions, the invitation of John sounds to us like an invitation to let the bulldozers of God (His Word), reshape the landscape of our own minds and hearts, and the social systems of our world. This will lead to our salvation.
This passage is one for those who believe Jesus never existed or was a made-up ‘character’. Here we have a historical setting. Here we are given a taste of Jesus in history … And here we are reminded by Luke the great Historian, that those who do not want to accept Christ will never accept Him no matter what the evidence is, but for those who do, this becomes a wonderful nugget of fact to support our faith.
This text is a reminder that Christ was not born into a perfect world. He was born into a world fraught with tension and conflict. He was born into the Roman Empire, into a Country occupied by the might of Rome. This is the place God chose to be born, not by accident, but as a vulnerable human being into the hand of human might and power. And in the face of Roman dominance, God spoke through one man in the wilderness: John.
Whilst the Roman Empire has long since disappeared, the Word of God remains and grows, not in military pomp and ceremony, but in the working of the human soul, calling every human on the face of the planet to enter into love with their Creator.
“When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion,
we were like men dreaming.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with rejoicing.
Then they said among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them’.
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad indeed.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the torrents in the southern desert.
Those who sow in tears
shall reap rejoicing.
Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves”.
“By contrition we are made clean;
By compassion, ready;
And by a genuine longing for God, worthy.
It is by means of these three that souls can attain heaven.
By these medicines every soul shall be healed.
The soul’s wounds are still seen by God,
Not as wounds but as honourable scars”.
Julian of Norwich
· What conversion of heart, life and mind is the Lord asking of me?
· “John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan”
Where is God calling me to go?
To what areas of my neighbourhood, Parish and workplace can I bring
compassion and loving service?
· “A voice of one crying out in the desert”
When have I felt like a voice crying out in the desert?
When have I failed to use my voice when I should have?
· “All flesh shall see the salvation of God”
How can I be more open to encountering Jesus?
Whom can I help to encounter Jesus?
How can I make my life a gift for others in charity?
proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid
for”.  Mark 1: 1-4: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah”. Acts 10:37: “You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached”.  Jeremiah 1: 2: “The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign
of Josiah, son of Amon, King of Judah”.  Luke 13:30; Matthew 20:16