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St John the Forerunner (the Baptist)
🎶 “Well, get up John go down to the Jordan / get up John prepare the way/ Man from Galilee is waiting / You must meet him there today/
Get up John go tell my people / This will be a holy day / Tell them of the Jew that’s waiting / That the Savior’s on his way/
John / You’ve been chosen / John / Go unafraid / John / I’ll go with you / John the Baptist / This is the day/ Well get up John go tell Jerusalem / Savior’s waiting on the shore / Baptize him in the river Jordan / I’ll send a Dove from Heaven’s door/
John / You’ve been chosen / John / Go unafraid / John / I’ll go with you / John the Baptist / This is the day/ Well get up John / Your work is finished / Daylight breaks the soldiers come / You will die for me tomorrow / Welcome home your race is run /John / You’ve been chosen / John / Go unafraid / John / I’ll go with you / John the Baptist / This is the day. “
By Bill Monroe 1953
(sung by Emmylou Harris’ live album “At the Ryman” 1992)
This icon was commissioned by Fr Svetozar Kraljevic at the time he was living in Medjugorie . On my first visit there (I was blessed by my late friend Mimi, to be taken there 4 times) one evening Fr Svet drove up to the house where we were staying . He said he wanted an icon of Our Lady of Medjugorie (Croatian, Medugorska Gospa or Queen of Peace, Kralijica Mira) I was hesitant because an icon is rather formal and having met a few of the visionary’s and listening to them describe Mary’s radiant youthful unearthly beauty, I was naturally intimidated. I told Fr Svet no one could create that kind of beauty- inside and out - that has been given to Mary. But he insisted saying that no one sees the apparitions of Mary except the few. He said they need an icon to gaze into, even though there are very “realistic” pictures and statues of Mary all over the area. So I went ahead and created two icons; the second was John the Baptist because the first apparition occurred on the feast of the Birth of John the Baptist, June 24 (1981); signaling that Mary is the Prophet preparing us for the return of Christ as King. Medjugorie has been under investigation since 1981, and yet since 1981 over 40 million people have made the pilgrimage to this tiny village in Bosnia, Herzegovina. Pope Francis is skeptical of the longevity of the apparitions (they are still going on today) but believes in the initial ones. He did say that there are millions of people who go there, convert and change their lives, “this is a spiritual and pastoral fact that cannot be denied.” So the official position of the church is not to approve or condemn the apparitions as being supernatural. I myself felt her presence there. I can only describe it as the feeling when somehow you know, when someone is looking at you, right near or behind you, and you turn around or toward them and see them. I felt that way. And when we’d leave for example, to go to Dubrovnik, her presence was gone. As soon as we’d return, I felt her again. I’m sure if you talk to anyone who has “been called” to make the pilgrimage, they will have many stories to tell you. When Mimi asked me to go with her and a friend I was very skeptical, but I cannot deny after my 4 visits, that the desire to come ever closer to God, and a perpetual desire for conversion; these continue to lovingly touch my life since my first visit.
The tradition of icons is that almost always the artist does not sign the work because it is believed the Holy Spirit is the author/painter. I have several books of Greek, Russian and Siberian icons. I saw this beautiful, powerful icon of St John the Forerunner in a Greek book, signed by the Greek master iconographer Michail Damaskenos 1530-1595. It is such an honor to attempt to copy any of the exquisite masterpieces of the past. You live with the presence of the iconographer and you learn so much by looking into their work, during the time it takes you to complete the copy. I have my favorites, of course St Andrei Rublev, Dionisius the Wise of the Novgorod school, Simon Ushakov the 17th century master who was so influenced by the west, that an archpriest Avvakum regarded his icons as “lascivious works of the devil.” Then there are the Greeks, Michail Damaskenos, Photios Kontoglu, and finally, my Russian American teacher, Friar Robert Lentz, OFM. At this “kairos time” in my life I find myself very drawn to Dionisius the Wise, and wish I could just spend the rest of my life copying his work ! He is so deceptively pure and simple.
John the Baptist has been painted, sculpted, portrayed in plays, films, and in the Bill Monroe song I began with. A couple of my favorite images of him are in the National Gallery in Washington DC by Andrea del Verrocchio and the Caravaggio in the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri. John begins the summer with his birthday and ends summer with the feast of his death August 29. I love Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions of his life, and also the contemporary British historian and theologian, Joan E. Taylor’s book on John. Both women have fed me for years. Who can imagine Jesus’ fear and anguish when he heard of John’s murder ? “ Despite this exalted ministry, the Baptist’s work is one of humility. At the height of his apostolic activity, John does not seek to grow his own ministry apart from the Incarnate Word. He is content directing others to Christ. He aims to make Christ known as he himself fades into the background. Augustine praises John’s clarity in mission : ‘he identified himself, he pointed out the difference between Christ and himself, he humbled himself.’ In our Christian life, we need to imitate St John the Baptist. Whether it be on our lips or in our hearts, we echo the words of the Baptist: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’” (Jn. 3:30) written for “Faith and Culture: The Journal of the Augustine Institute” by Ben Akers. This is also, I believe, the perfect definition of iconography and the mission of iconographers.
Fr Bill McNichols 💮 end of August 2021