–Detail of John the Baptist, Matthew Grunewald
In the fourth gospel, no story recounts the baptism of Jesus by the great Advent figure we call John the Baptist. The Evangelist refers to the day when the famous dove descended and a voice from heaven named Jesus “the beloved,” but nowhere does he tells us that John did anything that day except to be present and see it. The fourth gospel is not as interested in John the Baptist as it is in John the Witness. “I have come to testify,” John says.
That is why in Christian iconography the Forerunner is often depicted in a pointing pose. In some images, he is also given an unnaturally long index finger. Your eyes are compelled to follow along his outstretched or uplifted arm to the very end of that finger, which is precisely what John wants you to do, for beyond that finger is the most important thing of all.
There is no motion in these images: John is not preaching or immersing. He is not even scolding. He is pointing, implacably, to Someone there, here, “already among you,” he says. Someone we cannot see, Someone we need help seeing, in part because that Someone is so unremarkable (unsurprisingly so: after all, for thirty long years, he chose the same invisibility of ordinariness in which most human lives are cloaked); but also because we have trouble seeing truth in front of our eyes, truth hiding in plain sight, truth that is just too unvarnished and blunt for us to be willing to credit, truth so bracing it requires courage we do not possess of ourselves to embrace it.
And so the Witness points. He compels us to look. His help feels more like coercion; it is insistently intrusive and unpleasant, but without it we might not dare. He will not move an inch from the spot until we follow his oddly elongated finger to the object of his testimony.
That’s not the hard part, however. The hard part comes next, when we see what we see; because as compelling as the truth is, as candidly as it stands there looking back at us along the line of sight John’s finger describes, we can still decide not to see it, to look away, to avert our eyes in any one of a thousand practiced aversions—denial, fear, cowardice, exhaustion, nuanced abstraction…
To be willing to gaze at it as steadfastly as John points to it is a great grace, something to beg for every day on our knees; because the more we are willing to look, and the longer we are able to look, the more unblinking we will become, and the more we will grasp that John’s vocation is the most critical calling of all—the call to be a witness who will not move from the spot, will not lower the arm, will not retract the finger, will not permit any human heart its cherished evasions and its practiced aversions—intricate obfuscations, intellectual games, political posturing, power plays—but for a thousand thousand years if need be, will point and point and point.
Yesterday, a young man murdered his mother, 20 children, and several adults who were caring for them, and then he murdered himself. He murdered families and a school and a town and a nation. He took the life out of the world beyond the nation too. This “tragedy,” as we are so fond of calling all the world’s mass murders, did not “unfold,” as news anchors kept repeating all day: like all other mass murders (violence in our cities, war, starvation, poverty, drugs, financial manipulation, vast stolen wealth, the earth’s pollution) it was no passive accident, no random occurrence. There is something to see here, something to point to, something to be implacable about, a truth about what happened, a truth about ourselves.
Whose raised arm and long finger will show us what it is? Who will come up from this wilderness and spy the ordinary truth right in front of our eyes, the ordinary human and humanizing truth hiding in plain sight? Who will not cease pointing once the funerals end and the hue and cry has died away and the lobbies have cowed us once again? Who will not be moved?
Can we get a witness?
The Reformed theologian Karl Barth had this painting over his desk- and wrote about the oversized finger of John the Baptist as a model for Christian life, that we too should be pointing to the Christ.
Bless you, Mary.
I didn’t know that, Laura. Kinda glad I didn’t. Might not have dared to say a word in Barth’s shadow! Bless you back.