Sunday, December 7, 2014

John 1: John...An Angel?

The Orthodox tradition refers to Jesus' cousin (and baptizer) John as the Forerunner. In some icons he is written as the Angel of the Desert. The oversize wings are probably the most obvious reason for John's identification as an angel. We should remember that the word angelos can mean angel but also messenger, and certainly John was a messenger, as described in John 1 (the gospel reading for Advent 3B).
John the Forerunner. 17th century. Moscow School. Trevetyakov Gallery.
In icons of John the Forerunner, the central figure is shown large, with body-length wings, usually holding a scroll and a chalice (or salver or footed paten called a diskos, the dish that holds the bread) and a scroll. Sometimes the chalice contains John's own head, a prefiguring of his beheading. In the icon shown, the chalice contains the figure of Christ, naked and lying down. John points to the Christ, in the icon as he will in life.

In his hand John holds a scroll, generally a symbol of a prophet. In Christian tradition, John is the final prophet in the line of prophets in Hebrew scripture who foretold the Messiah.

Surrounding the figure are episodes from the life of John the Forerunner. Some are familiar - his birth, the dance of Salome, his beheading. Other episodes are from legend. At the left of the composition, an angel leads the infant John into the wilderness. As told in the Prologue of Ohrid (1928), to escape Herod's order to murder the children, Elizabeth took John to the wilderness. They were pursued by soldiers but hid in a miraculous opening in the rock. Zechariah was slain at the altar on Herod's order - Herod being furious that John had not been killed. Forty days after Zechariah's death Elizabeth also died. John stayed in the wilderness being fed and cared for by an angel of God.

Often John is perceived as the slightly quirky (locusts, honey, animal fur) member of Jesus' family. Does your perception of him change if he is known as the Angel of the Desert?

Take a closer look at the audience drawn to the river by John's preaching on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page

This week's Food&Faith Matters page considers gardens, seeds and sheaves from Lent 3B's readings in Isaiah 61 and Psalm 126. The link is at the bottom of the page.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Isaiah 61), click here.

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