Martyrdom of the Best Man

Machaerus diagram.jpg
drawing of the Machaerus fortress, based on archaeology

St. John the Baptist died on August 29. Not in Jerusalem, but in what is now the Kingdom of Jordan, on the east side of the Dead Sea. (In New-Testament times, they called the region Perea.)

Herod the Great had rebuilt the fortress of Machaerus, after the Romans under Pompey had destroyed it in 57 BC.

head-platterHerod the Great died decades before John’s martyrdom. The Herod who ordered the execution was his son Herod Antipas, who received Galilee and Perea as his inheritance. (A different Herod, Jr.—Herod Archelaus—ruled Judea and Samaria, until the Romans re-organized it as a prefecture, governed for a time by Pontius Pilate.)

Anyway: St. John died outside Jerusalem, because he was not the Christ. He was the greatest of all the prophets, the greatest man born of woman, who served as the friend of the incarnate Bridegroom. St. John prepared the bride to meet her Husband.

He prepared the faithful remnant of Israel. That preparation involved his public condemnation of the marital infidelities of Herod Antipas and Herodias, both of whom had other living, royal spouses.

As the Lord Jesus put it: the coming of the Messiah meant the restoration of the law of lifetime marital fidelity. By His own offering of Himself on the cross for His bride, Christ consecrated the marriage bond as a sacrament of God’s fidelity to His people.

St. John died for bearing witness to this nuptial mystery of the coming of the Messiah.

Pre-Passover Purification

A message for everyone, especially the Upper Schoolers at Roanoke Catholic

jerusalem-sunriseIn the Old Covenant, in order to celebrate the Passover feast, you had to travel to Jerusalem.

Who reigned as King of Judea at the time of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem? Herod the Great. Herod built a huge Temple courtyard, and he put the entrance to the south. Why? Maybe because he himself hailed from the south, from Idumea.

Anyway, it’s all in ruins now, of course. But in the ruins of the southern steps to the ancient Jerusalem Temple, what do we find? Ritual baths. Anyone know what they are called? Mikveh.

In order to ascend to the Temple to celebrate the holy feast of Passover, you had to undergo a cleansing. And, of course, it was not just an exterior cleansing. The ritual bath involved interior repentance for sin.

When does our Passover feast of the New Covenant begin? This Sunday! Palm Sunday. We do not have to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover of Christ. We just have to go to the local parish church.

We do need repentance and purification, however, in order to celebrate the feast worthily, with upright hearts. Just like the ancient Israelites needed repentance and purification in the old days.

We don’t insist on ritual baths. Just a good, honest, humble confession.

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This video goes a long way to showing just how deadly boring Holy Land archaeology can be. (The longest summer I ever spent was a sun-drenched February afternoon at the Sepphoris archaeological park in Galilee.) But the video has some interesting info. re: mikvot.

King of the Jews

epiphany
20 C + M + B 14

“We have come to do homage to the newborn King of the Jews.”

The king of the Jews. Let’s pause to consider the significance of the phrase.

The Jews came out of Egypt, with Moses leading the column. Eventually, they reached the Holy Land. Then generations passed. The Jews confronted military challenges. The Lord raised up the generals that the people deserved, based on their faithfulness. Stay pious, and you get good generals to lead the army. Follow pagan gods, and I abandon you to the hands of your enemies.

These generations passed, and the Jews had conflicts among themselves. So the Lord raised up judges to help settle disputes, based on Moses’ law. Again, when the people lived in the fear of God, they got good judges. When they followed the pagan religions, their judges took bribes.

winston-churchillOne thing the Jews never had, from Abraham for fourteen succeeding generations—they never had a king. One of the more heartbreaking passages in Scripture can be found in I Samuel 8, when the Israelites begged the prophet to anoint a king for them to lead their armies. They wanted to be like the other nations, like the other kids. The other kids get cellphones, and the other nations have kings, so we want one.

Samuel prayed, and the Lord said to him, “Old, faithful servant of mine, they are not rejecting you. They are rejecting Me.”

To be a people that has only the invisible God for a king: certainly that would be a holy people, and a realistic people. After all, we are a lumpy race, prone to foibles, failings, and foolishness. Who among us has what it takes to stand as a paragon, an exemplar of humanity, a royal?

But God gave Israel a king—meanwhile predicting that the nation would live to regret the request. And they did. Saul disobeyed the Lord. David came closest to the ideal: beautiful, brave, cunning, exuberant, and musical. But he fell from grace, and lust made a schemer and a murderer out of him. His son Solomon achieved great wisdom, but then he, too, fell. The glory of the royal house of Judah passed away from the earth—apparently forever.

Herod
Herod
When the magi arrived, asking the supposed King of the Jews where the King of the Jews was, a thick irony hung in the air. Herod could have said, “Um. The king of the Jews? I know you fellas ain’t from around here. But did you notice the crown? The throne? Did you notice the framed papyrus from the Roman Senate, addressed to Herod, King of the Jews? I’m not kickin’ butt and taking prisoners around here just for the fun of it.”

But they didn’t have that conversation. Then the travelers from the east did see the King of the Jews. They followed the star to the manger. And then the strange concession that God had made so long ago, the strange concession He made in choosing a king from among the people—it finally made sense.

On the one hand, Yes, it is true: The only way for a people to grow holy is to serve God Himself as the king. God is the only real king. Yes.

But, on the other hand, also true: Mankind needs a human king. We need a king from among our race. Jesus is the king Who fulfills both of these. He is the divine human King.

Now, as we know, the divine and human King of the Jews founded no political organization or party. He founded a Church, which is every bit as lumpy and prone to foolishness as any other human organization, and yet somehow manages to let the Holy Spirit guide Her through every bump and turn of history. The society founded by Christ has extended Herself to every society. The King reigns over a universal Church.

Like the magi, we come to do our homage to the King of the Jews. We have citizenship in His kingdom and do our duty as knights and ladies of His realm.

Here, in this part of the world, we live in a vast and venerable republic, constituted as a nation to be a democracy. IMHO, we should remind ourselves frequently of the immortal words of Winston Churchill. With one sentence, he gave us the right perspective on the work of Thomas Jefferson and Co. Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones.”

That Jesus, born of Mary in Bethlehem—that He is the divine King: this will be true throughout 2014, and 2015, and every other year, until there are no more years, and His kingdom comes, and God is all in all forever.

The things we hear about on the news: They may or may not be true today, may or may not be true tomorrow, almost certainly won’t be true this time next year.

The great number puts everything in perspective. 2014. Two thousand fourteen. 2,014 years since Obamacare was passed? No. 2,014 years since the Redskins had a playoff win? No. 2,014 years since Columbus discovered America? Or since Bill Gates founded Microsoft? Or since Mahatma Gandhi liberated the people of India from colonial rule? No.

2,014 years since the most important thing that ever happened. 2,014 years since the Virgin gave birth to the King of the Jews, to our divine King, our brother Jesus, Who reigns on high.

Drunken Grandiosity

head-platterSt. John the Baptist, pray for us that we will always act in a lawful manner, as you courageously counseled Herod to do.

Act lawfully. That is, guided by standards.

Established standards, based on the Ten Commandments.

Law binds people precisely so that we do not step blindly into impossible moral situations.

Herod was drunk on wine. He was drunk on lascivious pleasure. But even worse: he was drunk on his own power. He threw open a door that he lived to regret having opened. “Ask whatever you want of me, even to half my kingdom!” I am Mr. Big! I am Mr. Grand!

Ok, Mr. Big. Ok, Mr. Grand: Kill the holy man. Make good on your grandiose promise. Kill the holy man.

His Beatitude Fouad Twal
His Beatitude Fouad Twal

Talk about a situation of perverse logic. ‘Now, I have to kill the holy man, because otherwise I will look like a bloviating nobody. My word won’t mean anything if I don’t kill him. So I have no choice.’

Drunk on wine. Drunk on lascivious pleasure. But worse: Drunk on grandiosity.

‘There was a red line! This can’t stand! Indispensible nation! Military options! There was a red line!’

Sounds a lot like a similar situation of perverse logic to me. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem frankly asks us, “Who appointed the U.S. the policeman of the Middle East? Has Syria attacked the U.S.?”

May cool heads prevail. May everyone act lawfully.

Herod could have said: I made a foolish promise. I can’t kill the holy man. Herod didn’t actually have any credibility to lose. He could have started building up a little, by admitting his mistake. He could have started to act as an honest man by saying: ‘I made a foolish promise. Better to admit that, and move on with law-abiding humility than to fulfill my promise and make the whole situation immeasurably worse.’

The Conscience of the King

If you would like to pray for reprieve from hurricanes (especially on the feast of the Martyrdom of the Baptist), click here.

…In the Old Covenant, the Lord established a monarchy in the person of King David and his descendants. This institution possessed unique characteristics—unique characteristics of many different kinds. One of these, which made the throne of Judah different from all of its neighbors was this:

As we read, at one point during his reign, King David undertook a manifestly corrupt and evil course of action. He plotted to have Uriah the Hittite killed, so that he could marry Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. When David undertook to do this, the king’s evil orders were indeed obeyed by his subordinates. But not everyone stood by quietly. The prophet Nathan came to David. The prophet confronted the king and managed to convict David out of his own mouth as an unjust villain who deserved death.

No other kingdom in recorded ancient history had prophets who would humiliate the king, if the cause of truth required it.

…There is a higher King, and the higher King has His will and His plan—and His will and plan are true. The wills and plans of all of us here below, from the most- to the least-powerful: they all must be measured, and they can be found wanting.

Nathan confronted King David. Nathan, God bless him, got to sleep in his own bed that night. David had been wrong, but he was not so wrong as to blame the messenger of truth when condemnation came. St. John the Baptist likewise confronted Herod. But St. John did not get to sleep in his own bed on Herod’s birthday night or any other night after that.

Both King David and King Herod had given into lust and sinned against the sacred marriage bond. Both were measured by truth and found wanting. Both of the prophets who had the guts to confront these kings—both of them were prepared to die for it.

Can we imagine for a moment that John the Baptist hesitated for even a millisecond before accusing Herod? The Baptist did not hold his life on earth at a pin’s fee; all he cared about was the truth; he certainly did not hesitate.

If we say to ourselves, “Well…John the Baptist is John the Baptist. Living in the desert, wearing camel hair, eating locusts, etc. Of course he never thought twice about confronting the powerful; of course he was ready for death. He was John the Baptist, after all!

“But I don’t know if I am cut-out for such death-defying truth-telling missions. I’ve got commitments in this world; I’ve got to compromise and find a way to get along…”

Okay. Alright. No one wants to be an obtuse egomaniac who styles himself a latter-day John the Baptist.

But let’s ask ourselves this about the man himself, about the real John the Baptist: If simply being John the Baptist meant that he would denounce the king for an unholy marriage–without a thought for his own safety; if ‘being John the Baptist’ meant as much, then what does ‘being a Christian’ mean?

If John the Baptist had not done his duty and accused the king; if instead he had retired from his calling, or never followed it in the first place, and instead kept a little shop and had a wife, and then died in his bed an old man; when he went to meet God, wouldn’t God say, “Look here, man. I made you to be a mighty prophet. But you blew it off, blew off your mission because you wanted a little comfort for a few years. For crying out loud, I made you to be John the Baptist, but you crumbled and became John the baker instead! Geez.”

If we can see clearly the incongruity of such a scene, then why can’t we see this clearly: If I die and go to God, and He says, “Look here, man. I made you to be a Christian. I consecrated you in truth to live for heaven and never fear death. But you didn’t have the guts to stand up!”

…We also have to ask ourselves one other question. Who do we have the duty to confront? We have to go after the most dangerous tyrant of all.

Of all the kings of the world, which is the most difficult one to confront with the truth? Before which potentate does it require the most guts to stand up?

The star chamber that requires the most courage for sticking solely to the truth is the little room where I stand alone in front of the mirror. If I can accuse the tyrant I see there of all his sins, then there’s hope for me. Then I can look forward to sharing the reward which John the Baptist now enjoys.

Herod and the Germans

Who is this, about whom I hear that his apostles heal the sick and announce the kingdom of God?

So wondered Herod the tetrarch, when the Church militant began to march. Herod became the first secular ruler under whose jurisdiction Christ’s apostles operated. Countless more such rulers have followed.

Herod feared the moral truth. He ruled Galilee and Perea with some skill. But he knew that he had been a faithless husband to his first wife. He had schemed maliciously against his brothers.

In other words, he was a bad Jew, a ‘lapsed’ Jew. He was depraved. But he was not so far gone that he did not know he was depraved. He hated the truth which accused him of his faults, but at the same time he longed to see the holy man.

Today our Holy Father arrived for a visit to his native Germany. In his first speech, he said, “I am here to speak of God.” Crowds of his countrymen welcomed the Pope. A few others protested his public presence.

Like St. Peter before him, Pope Benedict proposes the Gospel. Therefore, he both repels and attracts. Living in the truth poses challenges and difficulties. Often we sinners fail to measure up to reasonable rules of conduct.

It can be very tempting to blame the messenger. But when someone invites me to the truth, I have a difficult time getting that message out of my head.