The Pointing Hand
(Is.11:1-10; Rom.15:4-9; Mt.3:1-12)
The symbol of the hand with a pointing finger has long been used to direct our attention, perhaps to get us to buy or to notice something.
This pointing hand is called the manicule, and in the days of snail-mail various versions of it were often stamped on redirected letters. We’re less likely to see it these days, except perhaps in the mouse cursor of some software programs.
However, there is one place where a pointing hand can still be found: in paintings of St John the Baptist.
As one of the foremost figures in Scripture (Lk.7:28), John the Baptist often appears in Christian art. He’s been portrayed as a boy; as a desert recluse; as the baptiser by the River Jordan; and as the victim of a cruel execution.
In so many of these artworks, he appears with an unruly mop of hair, holding a reed-cross, wearing camel-skin with a leather belt – and with a pointing hand.
The image of John the Baptist in camel-skin comes from today’s Gospel. By mentioning this detail, Matthew is linking John with the great prophet Elijah, who wore similar clothing (2Kgs.1:8).
The Jewish people long believed that Elijah would return from heaven one day to prepare the way for the Messiah. By emphasising the camel-skin, Matthew is effectively saying that John the Baptist is the new Elijah who has come to tell us that the Messiah is on his way.
In other words, John’s mission is to point us all to Christ, and this is how we see him in so many paintings – pointing towards a Bible, a lamb or to an image of Jesus himself.
In Leonardo da Vinci’s last painting, St John the Baptist, he’s pointing up towards heaven, reminding us of our need for eternal salvation. He also appears as a beacon of light against a very dark background, reminding us of Jesus’ description of John as ‘a lamp that burned and gave light’ (Jn.5:35).[i]
In his commentary on this description, Pope Francis said that John the Baptist is the lamp pointing towards the light and bearing witness to the light. But he’s not the light itself, for that is Jesus Christ.
He also said that John is ‘the voice’; the ‘voice crying in the wilderness.’ But he is not the Word itself. He is only the voice bearing witness to the Word and pointing to the Word, the Word of God. [ii]
John’s entire life is focussed on only one thing: serving as a messenger, preparing the way for the Messiah. This is his sole purpose, and it explains why his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, waited so long for him to be born.
In God’s divine plan, John could not have arrived any earlier. He had to wait until the time was right for Jesus’ birth, because their lives were inextricably linked. Indeed, when Jesus begins his public ministry, he uses John’s words: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ (Mt.3:1).
John’s message is simple and still very relevant today: it’s time for us to change the way we live, to turn away from sin, because Christ is coming. And he encourages everyone to accept the cleansing bath of baptism as a sign of their repentance (Lk.3:10-14, 18).
When Jesus arrives at the Jordan River seeking his own baptism, John recognises him at once, saying, ‘Look, there’s the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (Jn.1:29). He baptises Jesus and thereafter encourages all his disciples to follow Jesus instead (Jn.1:35-37).
This Advent, let’s reflect on John the Baptist, the strikingly bold saint who shows us that it’s okay to be different, especially if we are serious about eternal life. He also teaches us to be alert for signs of the coming of Jesus into our day-to-day lives.
Did you know that John’s right arm is now kept in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Siena, and his finger is kept in the famous Duomo in Florence? [iii]
Why do they keep these things? It’s because John the Baptist’s pointing hand is the model for us all to follow.
Pope Francis once said that if you want to make a picture of this great saint, all you need to paint is the image of a pointing finger.
John the Baptist’s whole life pointed towards Jesus Christ.
[i] Leonardo da Vinci, St John the Baptist, Oil on wood (walnut), 56 x 73cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre, c.1513-1516.
[ii] Pope Francis, Homily, 16 December, 2016. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/cotidie/2016/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20161216_the-pointing-finger.html