The more I think about the role of John the Baptist in salvation history, the more amazed I am at his humility, and the more cognizant I am of my need for the Holy Spirit. As I read both Isaiah’s prophecy and Mark’s summation of John’s work, I was reminded of Gruenewald’s painting of the Crucifixion on the Isenheim Altarpiece. Here we see lots of imagery, all smashed together, to a very positive effect. Beginning at the left, we find Mary, white as a ghost at the ghastly sight she has been forced to behold being comforted by the Disciple whom Jesus Loved. At Jesus’ feet is a woman, likely Mary Magdalene, alabaster jar nearby, kneeling in worship of her Lord upon the cross. Two the right of the emaciated Jesus, covered in wounds, his whole body pricked with thorns, we find the Passover Lamb, whose blood is being poured out from a wound that matches the spear prick on Jesus, into a chalice, a reminder of Jesus’ commandment that we make Eucharist in remembrance of him.
Finally, at the far right, we see a strange looking character. His hair and beard seem unkempt in Renaissance terms. He is wearing a cloak of camel hair and holding a codex, likely the book of the Prophets. He is clearly John the Baptist. Now, we know the Biblical witness tells us that John had long since died when Jesus was crucified, and yet, here he is, standing at the foot of the cross, when all but Mary, Mary, and John the Evangelist had abandoned him. Notice what he is doing. John is pointing at the disfigured man, writhing in pain upon the cross. The words at his outstretched finger are Latin and read “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John was a wildly popular character. The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees feared his popularity, even after his death. It would have been easy for John to lose perspective and to begin to think that it was all about him. Like a preacher in the receiving line, John could have begun to think that maybe his own work had brought him to the level of his fame, but he did not waver. His task was to point and to say, “Here is your God.” He did his job so faithfully, that Grunewald felt compelled to include him in what would become one of the most famous paintings of the crucifixion in history. John, the one who came to point the way to the Messiah.