If we were looking for something more-dramatic than the controversy involving the pope and bishops, we found it. The Passion of St. John the Baptist, the anniversary of which we keep today.
St. John, while languishing in prison, sent two of his disciples to Jesus, to ask if He is indeed the Christ. I think we can safely assume that John sent these disciples with this question for their benefit, not his; he knew the truth.
Anyway, the Lord Jesus answered the question with a kind of question of his own (though it was hardly a prevarication 🙂 ) The Lord asked them: What do you see?
I have come, and the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear; lepers are clean, the dead rise again, and the poor have hope. Blessed is the one who takes no offense in Me.
In other words: Look, I may be a humble, dusty, sweaty Nazorean with no property, surrounded by low-class followers. But I am obviously the Messiah. You can see with your own eyes that I am the King of Justice, Peace, and true Life.
…Now to the dramatic moment of St. John’s death.
Herod drunk at his egomaniacal birthday celebration. Engaging in perverse, incestuous sensuality by leering at his own step-daughter, who was also his half-niece, the daughter of his half-brother. Reveling in his worldly power, swearing up and down to give her anything–as if he, Herod, were some kind of tin-pot god.
Then a dark thunderclap cuts through all the debauched levity. Execute the holy man. Kill the herald of the Messiah.
The mother and daughter had called Herod’s bluff.
Herod knew that what they asked him to do was wrong—grievously, preposterously wrong. He knew that a sober man would not think of such an act of violence. He knew that John, and John’s lord Jesus, spoke righteous truth, gave hope, offered people a path toward a good and wholesome life in the sight of God.
A big part of Herod’s own soul wanted to go down that path. But he couldn’t choose it; wouldn’t choose it. Instead, he chose merciless, hopeless, meaningless death. All because he feared being exposed for the puny little fraud that he actually was.
May God save us from such a fate. May He strengthen us so that we can face our choices humbly and soberly.
Let’s start by freely acknowledging that we ourselves are puny little frauds. No need to fear being exposed as such; we declare it ourselves! Then let’s stay close to Jesus and His saints.
Why did John the Baptist, languishing in prison, send an investigative team of his disciples to determine if Jesus is the Christ?
After all, at the Visitation, John leapt while still in Elizabeth’s womb, because he recognized Christ in Mary’s womb. And, at the Jordan River, John had more or less recruited Christ’s original disciples for Him, by declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
So John knew Jesus’ identity perfectly well, better than anybody. To answer our original question, let’s keep two things in mind. 1) John knew that he himself would soon die at Herod’s hands. So his disciples needed to come around to the truth about Christ now. And 2) The way the Lord Jesus answered the question shows that He, too, knew He was answering not for John’s benefit, but for John’s disciples’ benefit. Which means He answered for our benefit, also.
Lord Jesus actually made three points in His response.
First, “Am I the One Who is to come? Well, what do you hear and see?” Great miracles of healing, all the way up to the raising of a dead man. Namely… whom did Jesus order to get up and come out of his own tomb? Right! Lazarus. And He also raised the son of the widow of Nain and Jairus’ daughter.
So, Christ is saying to John’s disciples, and to us: Am I the Christ? Don’t you have rock-solid testimony to the great miracles that I have worked?
Second: “the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Jesus makes a subtle, but crucially important transition here. It’s not just that the poor believe in miracles, whereas the rich tend to cynicism. It’s that the work of the Christ benefits everyone in the same way—rich or poor, tall or short, Republican or Democrat, Redskins fan or Eagles fan.
Lord Jesus worked miracles of healing to help us grasp Who He is. But even miracles as wonderful as giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, or sure-footedness to the lame, all pale in comparison to the gift that Christ came to give to everyone, namely eternal life.
Some people have more money than others; some people have better eyesight than others; some people sing more euphoniously, or speak more mellifluously, or play cards more dexterously than others. But in the face of the ultimate reality, we all stand on equal footing.
None of us gets out of this alive. We all have in common the most decisive quality we possess: mortality. The tall, the short, the dexterous and the ham-handed, the good singers and the bad singers: we’re all mortal.
Which makes us all ‘the poor,’ if only we have the humility to face it. I don’t care how many times Alec Baldwin or anyone else barks orders at a fancy gadget that can automatically turn on your lawn sprinklers or give you traffic reports. If he, or anyone else, asks Siri or Alexa, or whatever, and says, “Ok Google, give me life after death,” the poor little machine will only say something pathetically inadequate, like “Searching the internet for LifeSaver breath mints.”
Which brings us to the third point in Jesus’ response to John’s disciples. “Blessed is the one that takes no offense at me.”
To understand this, let’s remember St. Peter. Unlike the disciples of St. John who came asking their question, St. Peter believed unequivocally that Jesus was the Christ. “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
But St. Peter at first took offense at the details of the Christ’s mission. Lord Jesus told the Apostles, ‘They will condemn and crucify your beloved miracle-worker, like a common roadside criminal. They will scourge me and spit on me and treat me like the lowest scum of the earth.’ To which St. Peter replied, ‘Oh no! That’s offensive. No way, sir!’
The Christ—the one and only–the single known option when it comes to a miracle-working Savior Who has backed up His words with deeds for 2,000 years–the only real Christ won immortality for us by drinking the cup of our lowly and impoverished mortality to the dregs.
There’s actually only one way not to take offense at Christ. After all, what happened to Him is crushingly offensive. That the babe of Bethlehem wound up dying of asphyxiation, nailed to a cross, with a crown of thorns cutting into His temples, forehead, and scalp—that offends every sensibility a decent human being has.
Not taking offense at Him requires squarely facing our own desperate poverty. We need Him. We need Him like… like a desert needs rain, like a town needs a name… like a drifter needs a room…like the heat needs the sun…like rhythm unbroken, like drums in the night, like sweet soul music, like sunlight…
When we know we need Jesus, we take no offense at Him. None at all. He willed to get born in poverty and take His first breaths lying in the animals’ feeding trough. He accepted His horrifyingly ignominious death, to win eternal life for us. We welcome it all with joy, every detail of His Gospel, because He is the one true hope we have. John the Baptist knew that, and he spent his life helping others to see it.
“I am unworthy to unfasten the sandals on his feet.” St. John the Baptist said this about his cousin, the Word made flesh.
For St. John the Baptist to say this! A worthy man, St. John. The greatest of all prophets. Consecrated in the womb of St. Elizabeth. Righteous as righteous can be. Even he says, “I don’t deserve even to unfasten the sandals of Jesus.”
Now, baby Jesus had no sandals at the first Christmas. His little feet hadn’t grown big enough yet even for footie pajamas. But St. John’s sense of unworthiness: let’s strive to feel it. Because it will help us find real joy, as we make our spiritual visit to the manger.
I’m not saying that we humble human beings don’t have some things going for us. We have rights, rights which even God recognizes. He made us creatures worthy of respect.
All human beings have the right to life, the right to a decent life, the right to follow our consciences freely. We all owe each other respect and esteem.
And Christmas offers us the perfect time to beg pardon of one another for all the times we have treated each other unworthily. For all the times I have failed to recognize what every human being deserves from me.
But the coming of Christ into the world involves something way beyond what we are “worthy” of, something way beyond what we could ever claim to deserve. We creatures made of dust, prone to ignorance, cravenly selfish—what claim can we have on our Creator? What can we demand of Him as our right, something He supposedly ‘owes’ us? In the beginning, He made us out of nothing, purely because of His love. We respond by looking at our phones most of the time.
Lying in the manger, Jesus radiates peace. His peace comes from the sublime heights of His divinity. He offers to us human beings what He has as God–as a gift. He offers freely what we ourselves have no hope of having, without Him.
We, the human race, deserved to stew in our own rather-unpleasant juice. But that’s what Judge Judy would say, if she had the case to judge. God, on the other hand, judges according to the criterion of His own ineffable love.
He stays true to Himself in everything, no matter what we do or don’t do. So, in the fullness of time, He became man, born of the Virgin, to give the human race hope and peace—to give Himself, as a pure, un-merited gift to the un-deserving.
Our real Christmas joy springs from the very same place in our souls where we acknowledge just how unworthy we are to be anywhere near the mystery of Bethlehem. Men and women of unclean lips, consumed by trifles, vain and self-centered! Yet He invites us to kneel close to Him, to adore Him, to hear His gentle breathing, and rejoice that His heart beats for us.
At Christmas, God tells the human race: What you deserve does not exactly concern Me right now. I delight in you. Not because you deserve it. But because I love you.
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. (Luke 1:62-64)
Zechariah probably qualifies as the most famous priest in the Bible. Perhaps all we priests should take note how Zechariah spent so much time completely mute.
And all husbands maybe should note this: The boy’s name? It’s what she said.
The coming of Christ, however, loosens tongues. Faith bears witness. As we pray at every Mass during this final week of Advent: St. John the Baptist was born “to sing of Christ’s coming.”
We can only imagine the quality of the holy prophet’s singing voice. Any ideas what modern singer might have a voice like St. John the Baptist had?
Johnny Cash? Ray Charles? Roy Orbison? Placido Domingo? Springsteen?
And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and the disciples of the Pharisees do the same; but yours eat and drink.” (Luke 5:33)
Ancient Jewish weddings went on for a week. Even venerable rabbis drank and danced at them. The Books of Moses enjoined one solemn day of fasting per year, the Day of Atonement. If this day fell during a wedding celebration, the wedding took precedence and the guests did not fast.
On the other hand: During the second-temple period after the Babylonian exile, the pious Jew fasted on nothing—no food or water until sundown—twice a week. John the Baptist apparently taught his disciples to do the same. And, at the very moment recounted in today’s gospel reading at Mass, as the Lord feasted with reformed tax collectors and prostitutes in Matthew’s home, John languished in Herod’s dungeons.
So the question they asked Jesus about fasting was an honest one, not a trick or an attack. In replying to the question, the Lord did John the honor of quoting him. John had introduced the image of the wedding, and had identified himself as the best man who rejoices when the groom, Christ, arrives.
Seems to me like the whole business gives us three good principles.
1. The Kingdom of God involves all the joy, all the festivity, all the dancing and merriment of a wedding. When Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s music and laughter and good red wine,” he grasped the most fundamental of all truths.
2. That said, the Bridegroom no longer dwells on earth, and the Paschal Mystery by which He fulfilled His mission involved the cruel agony of His Passion and crucifixion. Here on earth now, we long for the heavenly kingdom. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst; blessed are those who mourn. A Christian must fast.
3. The Church Herself is the Bride. Her laws, her rules regarding fasting allow us to fast as one, as the united Body of Christ, so that all danger of pharisaism among us is removed.
To some, the Church’s laws seem onerous, since most people don’t even know what fasting is. To others, Her laws seem lax, since we generally only have to go hungry two days a year. And even on Fridays, we have the option of substituting another act of penance for abstaining from meat, outside of Lent.
Some have proposed that fasting according to law destroys the true spirit of fasting, since our fast rather should come from personal devotion and be altogether invisible on the outside. Others insist that it is too easy to slip up, when we try to keep private fast days.
Given all this, it seems to me that we simple Christians living in the world do best to keep the fasts and days of abstinence enjoined by Church law, according to the rules laid down.
May St. John the Baptist intercede for Mr. Foley, that he may rest in peace. And may the Lord’s cousin pray for all who suffer, as he did, at the hands of depraved and violent Middle-Eastern despots.
St. John the Baptist said many wise things. The wisest of them all, perhaps, came when one of his disciples asked him about the Lord Jesus’ growing popularity. Anyone remember how John responded? “He must…”
Speaking for myself, I often grow impatient with what I see as other people getting in the way of my accomplishing good things. I could achieve such-and-such glorious success—if only so-and-so didn’t get in the way!
Then it struck me that the most-guilty so-and-so in this scenario is…me. No one gets in my way more, when it comes to doing good, than me myself. My preening ego, my desperate grasping for petty prominence.
He must increase; I must decrease. St. John knew—because it constituted the entire prophetic message that he had been consecrated to deliver—the Baptist knew that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Savior, the Redeemer. The Lamb of God has been slain, has conquered the evil over which all of the rest of us are utterly powerless, and now reigns on high, the one true Lord.
Which means that John the Baptist knew during his pilgrim life, better than anyone, that he himself is not the Messiah and one true Lord. I myself stand like a will-o’-the-wisp, armed with nothing but dust and wind, a pathetic tinker-toy of a workman, without Jesus working in me. I can do nothing without Him.
So let me get out of His way! May I count myself nothing, a pencil in someone’s hand, desperately in need of sharpening—that is what I am.
But what the Lord Jesus can do! That’s another thing; that’s an awesome prospect. May I be small enough so that He can use me to big advantage.
“There is no need for them to go away.” Matthew 14:16
The Lord mourned the cruel martyrdom of His cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus lamented the injustice that crushed the life of the greatest of Israel’s prophets. The man who had awoken the hope of the people–hope for a pure and wholesome life, hope for a future worthy of the chosen children of God. The man who welcomed people to this fresh start in the bracing Jordan water. The man who had the courage to accuse the powerful of hypocrisy and selfishness, inviting them, too, to repentance and an honest new beginning… This man had been brutally and arbitrarily murdered. Because the king did not want to go back on his drunken oaths. Herod liked to watch pretty dancing girls. And he had a mean, hard-hearted wife.
Jesus mourned all this. So He sought solitude, as He often did at such times, to pray to the Father.
We can relate to the Lord’s human emotions. I have five cousins, whom I love, and with whom I share tender childhood memories. If I learned that one of them had died, I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone for a while. I would find myself very sad.
Add to that the hope for the nation that John represented. He had brought the simple, beautiful message of the Old Covenant, the heritage of Israel, to the people of Jesus’ generation. John had brought together in himself the holiness of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, all rolled into one. Then add the fact that this burning light of truth and hope had been killed for no good reason at all, in a dark dungeon, during a drunken revel, with his head brought into the dining room on a platter, as if it were just another roast pig coming out of the oppressive royal kitchens.
St. 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.
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!’
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.’
At this time of year, we meditate on the mysterious role of St. John the Baptist.
Two brief insights from our Holy Father’s book about the gospels:
1. John the Baptist inherited the hereditary Old-Covenant priesthood from his father Zechariah.
In addition to being hereditary, the old priesthood was also episodic. You ministered in the Temple for your period of service; then you went back home to your ordinary daily life.
In other words, you were not always a priest. Sometimes, you stood in the Temple to pray and offer sacrifice. The rest of the time, you did other non-liturgical, non-sacrificial things.
John, however, lived out his inherited priesthood in a new way. He consecrated himself for life—and for constant priestly exercise. John the Baptist offered God the sacrifice of his entire heart, mind, soul, and strength in the temple of the desert.
John thus formed the bridge between the priesthood of the Old Covenant and that of the New. The Lord Jesus inaugurated a universal priesthood that operates like John exercised his. All of us who have been baptized into Christ have received the priesthood by which everything we do, everything we are, everything we suffer—all of it can be offered to the Father as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. For the holy priests of the new People of God, there is no moment of human life that does not have eternal significance.
2. St. John fulfills the mission of Elijah, which is precisely to declare that the fullness of time has come.
All the preceding work of creation and history served as a preparation for the moment that had now arrived: God Himself was coming to the earth in Person.
Therefore, the appearance of Elijah, in the person of John the Baptist, means: Prepare!
When the in-laws come over for turkey or ham, we dust the house and straighten up. But the time has now come for the visit of Almighty God Himself.
…Click HERE for a compendium of all of St. John the Baptist’s sayings.
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.