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St John the Forerunner

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St John the Forerunner

St John the Forerunner (John the Baptist - “The Angelic Man”)
“...Then the King regretted what he had said; but because of the vow he’d made in front of his guests, he issued the necessary orders. So John was beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a tray and given to the girl, who took it to her mother.
Later, John’s disciples came for his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus what happened.
As soon as Jesus heard the news, he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone...”
Matthew 14: 9-13
“To lead a better life, I need my love to be here.
Here, making each day of the year,
changing my life with one wave of (his) hand
Nobody can deny that there’s something there ...”
Lennon and McCartney 1966
The birth of John the Baptist comes at the beginning of summer, and his death, at the end of summer. A brief time just like his brief life. John in the Eastern Church is called “the Angelic Man” because of his preternaturally impossible existence in the desert. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions of him, claim to tell many details of his childhood alone, in the desert wilderness. And her accounts are a delight to read, filled with miraculous interventions of John being taught by angels and led by the Holy Spirit.
Most often icons go unsigned because it is hoped that the Holy Spirit is the author. But this magnificent Greek Icon by Michael Damaskinos (1530 - 1593) is signed by the master. Whenever I copy any icon I try to be sure to give credit to the one who did the original (prototype) because “in the icon world” you learn by copying the masters.
This icon was created for the sight of the continuing apparitions, in Medjugorje, Bosnia, Herzegovina.
On 24 June 1981, the feast of the birth of John, Our Lady of Medjugorje appeared, later announcing herself as the Queen of Peace. And symbolically announcing that Medjugorje was the place chosen as the “new Jordan” where people could come and be transformed (baptized) awaiting the second coming of Christ. And Mary will be the prophet to prepare us for the second coming as John was the prophet for the first coming of Christ.
So I changed the original slightly, to reflect the apparitions and this is the companion to the icon of Our Lady of Medjugorje, which I was commissioned to write by the Franciscan friar, Fr Svetozar who lived in the Friary, in Medjugorje at that time. I believe the two icons are still in that Friary.
I have not been to many apparition sights of Mary, except for Knock, Ireland, Akita, Japan and Medjugorje.
Through the generosity of my dear late friend, Mimi, I was given the gift of 4 trips to Medjugorje .
When people ask me what it was like, did I feel her presence (?) I can only come up with an analogy, I say,
“Do you know what it’s like when someone across the room is looking at you and your back is turned away so you couldn’t possibly know; but you do. You turn around and they are looking at you. How do you know ?” That’s how I felt all 4 times in Bosnia.
As soon as we left for day trips to Dubrovnik or some other town, that feeling was gone. As we’d re-enter the boundaries of Medjugorje, I could feel her presence again. That’s my poor and inadequate way of explaining. It is further said that each person who travels to Medjugorje is aware, through some simple or bold “hit you over the head obvious way,” that she knows you have come, and that actually, she drew you, specifically you ... to her side.
The young visionary’s all adults with children and grandchildren now, have miraculously managed to stay sane throughout the years, and keep pointing to her and her monthly messages, given on the 25th of each month,
she, who still appears with the words, “Praise be Jesus.”
At the time I was working on this icon I could find very few books on him, except by two women; the amazing “John the Baptist in Second Temple Judaism “ by Biblical scholar Joan Taylor and John’s life interwoven into the “Life of Christ” by Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. So I was blessed to be nourished by a scholar and a mystic. Now if you go looking for books on John, you’ll find plenty.
I have to add a very poignant note here, about my personal relationship to John through a work of art. When I was nineteen as a Jesuit novice in Florissant, Missouri, we took a trip across the state to the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri. I encountered a Caravaggio masterpiece “St John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” done in 1604. I was about the same age as John in the painting that first visit . The last time I visited this painting I was in my fifties, so I’ve spent many years being overwhelmed by one of the few Caravaggio’s in the United States. But on account of my long loving relationship to this painting, it’s my favorite Caravaggio.
Because of my friend and editor, Robert Ellsberg, I entered into email correspondence with the brilliant art critic, the late Sister Wendy Beckett. Robert would send her books (published by Orbis Press) of my work, and she really wanted to do a book with her own dazzlingly unique commentary on my icons. Can you imagine how excited I was ! But because of her declining health, she was unable to work on it, but managed to write on a very few, one was this icon of John. If you’d like to read it, it’s in the recent book “Dearest Sister Wendy : A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship” by Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg. But, Sister Wendy gave me the greatest compliment I’ve ever, or will ever receive. She said (paraphrasing) I can’t write about his icons because every time I look at one I go into a prayer. She singlehandedly affirmed my whole life’s vocation of the past 33 years, in one sentence, really just meant to be a sincere apology. And that one sentence continues to be as affirming to me as if she had written a whole book. She also warned me of the cost of this vocation, which still rings in my ears.
I’d love to quote her whole meditation on the icon of John but then you might never read the wonderful book Robert published after her death. And this book is truly a spiritual experience to read, “two saints” talking intimately with one another.
“... He knew well that he would die as he was against the king, but he preferred virtue to safety.”
St Ambrose Doctor of the Church (340 - 397)
Fr William Hart McNichols 🌠 29 August 2023