I am not an artist, nor do I have a great deal of understanding of art. Indeed, I was a young adult before great art even began to capture my imagination. I was in college and my sister, Martha, and I had ventured into the Art Institute of Chicago for the Monet exhibit. She had rented one of those headsets which narrated the exhibit as we walked through. I really was just tagging along so I hadn’t bothered to go to the extra expense of doing so, too.
Well, as you might expect, the Monet exhibit was popular and the crowds were moving slowly that afternoon. Martha could sense my impatience and yes, almost boredom. The pictures were beautiful, of course, but I had no deep interest either in the technique used or the play of light on canvas. I had no idea, really, what I was looking at. We were standing in front of Monet’s haystacks when she took her headset off and put it on my head and handed me the volume control. I stood transfixed as I listened to the narrator talk about the story behind the paintings. He said those haystacks which dotted the countryside (and still do — at least where I live) were symbols of the common folks. Indeed, he said they served as subversive messages of support in that time and place where, as in so many eras of history, common folks were treated in ways less than humane.
Now I’ve not been able to track down that particular interpretation in these past days. Even so, that afternoon a light bulb went on for me as I began to realize that art — perhaps especially great art — is often more than beautiful images captured well. Many times a larger story is being told. The art points to something beyond itself.
Perhaps this is especially so of what we might call religious art. Indeed, this week as I was digging
into the story of John the Baptist I came across a wonderful series entitled “Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading.” It explores the artwork featuring John in the National Gallery in London. (You can find the first episode here.) Again and again these experts explore the detail in the paintings — many of which at one time served as altar pieces — and they point out the meaning behind things the less educated among us would otherwise probably miss altogether. Either way, over and over you hear that the story told with oil and canvas points beyond itself to something more.
Which, of course, is also what John does in all that we hear about him in scripture. Right here at the beginning of John’s Gospel not only does the Evangelist tell us that John was the one who came to testify to the light, but John himself says so: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.” “…. the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal…” Indeed, both in the story told here and in all sorts of famous artwork we see John with his arm outstretched, pointing beyond himself. Pointing to Jesus.
And so I wonder now at what enabled or equipped John to do that — to point in the direction of Jesus. It must have taken extraordinary clarity borne of discipline for him to not succumb to the temptation of grandeur with all those people flocking to her him preach and receive the gift of baptism at his hand. We don’t hear directly about that, of course — unless we stand still for a moment in those other passages which describe John’s extraordinary wardrobe and diet. We don’t hear about that unless we consider that in spite of the crowds which are described in these passages bout him — he must have also had considerable time alone. Time spent in prayer, meditation, study, and just plain wondering about what he had been called to and for.
In this season of Advent it is so, of course, that this voice of John is crying out to us as well to get ready — to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus — and in this way to point to Jesus. Like John, we are reminded that our job is to get out of the way of the Coming One — to get out of the way so that others can see Him, too.
You know, I saw something of what this might look like in a hospital waiting room a few weeks ago. I was sitting with a couple of members of the congregation I serve — we had stepped out of cardiac intensive care for a few minutes.
There were only a handful in the waiting room that afternoon and I have to say that at first I was so focused on those I was with, I hardly took them in. Pretty soon, though, a young woman wearing a black head scarf approached us. Politely interrupting our conversation, she asked if we could point her in the direction of East.
Now this was an interior room with no windows — and it was a snowy day anyway so I’m not sure having windows would have helped much anyway. I stumbled as I tried to reply for I had no idea. As I tried to download a compass on my smart phone, the gentleman behind us jumped in and pointed her in the right direction. Quietly she stepped behind some chairs, laid down her prayer mat and began to pray. She knelt and stood with head bowed and knelt again. When her mother came out of the rest room, she oriented her in the right direction, too — only she sat her down in a chair to do so. It was especially interesting to note that throughout the time that she prayed, her mobile phone kept ringing — but somehow she seemed able to ignore it as she continued to kneel and bow.
Well, I couldn’t help myself. I told those I was with that I would catch up with them and I hung back to visit with her for a minute. I asked her who she was praying for. “Oh, I’m not, ” she said. Waving at her prayer mat, she continued, “This is just my usual prayer.” She went on to thank me for our help in pointing her in the right direction. And then she said, “You know, even if I hadn’t known which direction East was, it would have been all right. I still could have prayed.” In those next moments I specifically asked her about who she was there for and she told me they were waiting on news about her father who had six bypasses that morning. She told me his name was Muhammad Eesac (I’m just writing it as she said it here). And she said, “You know. Like your Abraham and Isaac.” She went on to say that she had a son named “Esau.” And she said, “Like your Jesus.” I told her then that my prayers would join hers for him and I re-joined my group down the hall.
Our rituals are different, of course. Even so, I’ve been wondering ever since how it is that people know that you and I are pointing towards Jesus. Normally, it can’t be told in how we dress. Or in the public practice of prayer. Or which way we face when we pray. So then, what is it? How will people know that we are oriented in the direction of the Coming One: the Christ Child? Will it be in what I say and do? Will it be in my generosity and joy? Will it be in my saying so? As John did? What do you think? How will our public witness along with John and not unlike a young woman I met in a hospital waiting room tell the world that we are pointing to One beyond ourselves?
- What does it look like for you to face in the direction of the Coming Christ Child and to prepare the way?
- In all of our accounts of John, he is pointing beyond himself. How are you and I called to do the same?
- John had certain disciplines which, no doubt, helped him to be and do what he was called to be and do. Clearly the young Muslim woman I spoke with in the waiting room practiced certain disciplines, too. How about you? What disciplines do you engage in which keep you pointing beyond yourself as they both did and do?