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.
Herod 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.
We want friendship with God, they thought to themselves. We want to practice religion honestly. We want clear consciences. We want to sleep peacefully at night. We want to have a solid foundation for our relationships. Something other than the usual routine of taking advantage of other people. Or being taken advantage of.
They thought: We don’t want to live in fear of death, judgment, and condemnation. We want to hope for a final reward, from the Lord who sees all and knows all.
So they came seeking righteousness. And St. John gave them simple, practical guidance.
The Roman soldiers had the raw power necessary to extort money from those weaker than themselves. But John said to them: ‘Look, men at arms, morality is not rocket science. Don’t do that to people; don’t take money from people who can’t fight back. Maybe all the other soldiers do it. But that doesn’t make it right.’
Likewise, the Roman tax collectors could cheat people easily. No one understood all the complex tax rules. And all the tax collectors cheated; they all lined their own pockets by bilking the poor and shorting the emperor. In the Roman empire, if you became a tax collector, it meant: You have it made! So of course you had to do all kinds of unsavory favors to get the post in the first place.
But St. John said to this notoriously corrupt group: ‘Look, morality is not that hard. Stop thinking of your position as merely a means to enrich yourselves! Just follow the rules. Don’t demand more than you should from the people. And don’t keep more than is rightly coming to you.’
Imagine! Collecting taxes for the emperor honestly. Practically unheard of. ‘But,’ St. John exhorted them, ‘you can do it. And you’ll be able to look at yourselves in the mirror.’
Integrity of life. A lot less complicated, actually, than self-interested deceit. Liars have to remember all their lies. But when we cultivate the fine art of telling the truth all the time, we don’t have to remember anything. We can say what we have to say and move on to the next thing. The facts always bear out what an honest person said.
On the other hand, a double life destroys inner peace. We all know this. If you’re slipping money into your pocket when no one is looking, then the auditor’s impending visit terrorizes your dreams. The auditor looms over a dishonest person like Godzilla.
St. John’s underlying point is this: If you lie, steal, and cheat in this life, you actually cheat yourself out of two important things:
1. Energy. Because you wind up spending a great deal of it, in the constant effort necessary to deceive other earthlings. All for no good reason, because God sees the truth anyway. He sees the whole picture, down to the minutest detail. No one can lie to Him. At least not successfully.
2. If you lie, cheat, and steal–and you do manage to obtain some benefit from it–it’s a low-stakes benefit anyway. It’s a small-time, highly temporary benefit.
More money than the Joneses? A more comfortable Jacuzzi? More likes on facebook? Compared to: The peace of communion with Truth, Goodness, and the undying Beauty that made the heavens and the earth.
As we hear in our first reading at Sunday Mass, to the honest people, with clear consciences, the prophet declares: ‘Shout for joy! Sing joyfully! The Lord has removed the judgment against you. You have no further misfortune to fear. Be not discouraged. The Lord God, a mighty savior, will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in His love.”
And St. Paul says to the honest Christians, the ones who have confessed our sins and received God’s mercy: “Brothers and sisters, rejoice! Have no anxiety at all.”
Then St. Paul adds perhaps the most-consoling assurance that can be found in the entire Bible. His words appear in the blessing which the priest gets to give at the end of a Christian funeral–when the grieving mourners have entrusted their loved one’s body to the earth, and the soul to the loving care of the heavenly Father. The priest gets to give the same blessing as St. Paul gives.
Honest Christians, brothers and sisters of pure faith and clear conscience: “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
That’s the reward of honesty, of living a simple life of fairness and respect for others. The peace that surpasses understanding.
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.’