Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Lesson of John the Baptist: What Are You Willing to Die For?

"O God, who willed that Saint John the Baptist
should go ahead of your Son
both in his birth and in his death,
grant that, as he died a Martyr for truth and justice,
we, too, may fight hard
for the confession of what you teach. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever."

(Collect from the Ordinary Form of the Mass)

Today we celebrate, both in the Traditional Calendar and the Contemporary Calendar of the Church, the Feast Day of the Martyrdom of John The Baptist, who was beheaded by Herod Antipas. Our Lord said of His cousin:  "Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist."  There are many reasons why John the Baptist is the greatest "born of women".  Taking a look at his life gives many clues.

John the Baptist was conceived and born  as the result of a miracle from God after his mother's child bearing years had ended.  His father was a priest in the temple in Jerusalem, a prestigious position, yet despite this lofty position, his parents had suffered their entire married lives from the social stigma of being childless.  Childless couples were viewed as being cursed by God, having done something to merit God's disfavor.  Even after John's birth, they no doubt still felt the pain of being judged by others.

Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary
and the baby John the Baptist
John the Baptist could have had a comfortable life as a priest in the Temple.  But he chose instead to go literally go off into the wilderness, rejecting all worldly comforts, and instead live with the outcasts of society - those who were deformed physically or mentally in some way, those whom society had rejected.  It is estimated that only 20% to 30% of the Jews were even allowed into the temple.  All the rest were, for various reasons, considered unclean and unfit to even enter the temple. John rejected a position with the elite of society and instead chose the weak and poor and those who "mourned", as our Lord described them.

The Preaching of St John the Baptist by
Alessandro Allori, 1601-1603
John the Baptist is often described as a sort of wild man, kind of frothing at the mouth and condemning everyone for being great sinners.  The fact is, he was the Mother Teresa of his day, taking care of those who had been rejected by the rest of society.  He had a great many followers because he truly loved and ministered to them. 

But, as the Gospels also tell us, he did not waste words in pointing out those who were oppressing the weak and poor, and told them, "Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire."  (Matt. 3:7-10). It is well to remember that John the Baptist may have personally known those he was condemning as he had once lived in Jerusalem at the temple with his parents.  So while John was very popular with the "common" people because of his great love for them, the Jewish leaders despised him because he called them out for exactly what they were and did not spare any words.

It is interesting to note that Jesus started his public ministry by being baptized by John the Baptist, this social and religious outcast, looked down upon by elite members of religious society. 

John the Baptist rebuking Herod and Herodias
But John didn't stop at the religious leaders.  He did not shy away from pointing out the political leaders when they were involved in evil.  That included Herod Antipas, who was married to his brother's wife, an evil and scandalous act, and John paid a heavy price for his fearless condemnation.  Mark 6:17-20:
For Herod himself had sent and apprehended John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias the wife of Philip his brother, because he had married her. For John said to Herod: It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. Now Herodias laid snares for him: and was desirous to put him to death, and could not. For Herod feared John, knowing him to be a just and holy man: and kept him, and when he heard him, did many things: and he heard him willingly.  
Herodias finally got her chance to get rid of John the Baptist at Herod's birthday party.  She had her daughter perform a particularly provocative dance for Herod, getting him into such a state that he promised her anything she wanted in return.  At her mother's prompting, she asked for the head of John the Baptist, who was being held prisoner.  Herod, knowing that he was killing a good and holy man, nonetheless cut off the head of John the Baptist.



The meditation from today's Magnificat  is from a priest who was executed by the Nazis on February 2, 1945 in Berlin, Germany.  His name is Father Alfred Delp, S.J.  Father Delp was part of the Resistance movement in Germany against Adolph Hitler.  Father Delp was arrested and imprisoned on July 28, 1944 by the Nazis after a major attempt on Hitler's life.  Although the Nazis were not aware of it, Fr. Delp took his final vows to the Jesuit Order on December 8, 1944 while in prison.  He wrote that day: It was too much, what a fulfillment, I prayed for it so much, I gave my life away. My chains are now without any meaning, because God found me worthy of the "Vincula amoris" (chains of love). 
Father Alfred Delp, S.J.
THE WITNESS OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
The figure of John demonstrates two laws about authentic people and shatters two dangers to which man's authenticity generally succumbs.  He shatters two situations in which an authentic man so very often suffocates and drowns.  The first law and the first danger:  the prophet stands before the king.  And the first point:  do not permit regard for private security or personal existence to make you into an inauthentic person.  So very often throughout history, whenever prophet and king have encountered one another, the king is always in the superior position.  What is easier, what is simpler, than to muzzle a prophet!  Yet, indeed, hasn't it been - not the voices of those who went into the palaces and were welcome there - but rather the voices calling in the wilderness who filled the cosmos, who prepared the way, who directed people toward Advent, and who arranged for the proper meeting with the end and the Ultimate?
Prophet and king!  The prophet must have known that the king's power and force and majesty would fall upon him and crush him if he said, "Non licit:  That is wrong because it is inauthentic and is not in accordance with the divine order."  And John said it, and he was crushed, and he was brutalized, and - for all time and eternity - he stands as the witness within history, as the witness before the face of the Lord, as authenticity itself.  And he was right!
Along with that are the second law and the second danger.  Futility or ineffectiveness do not dispense one from speaking the truth, declaring what is wrong, and standing up for what is right and just.  How could this prophet think he could interfere in the family history and family scandals of the king, and be successful?  Whoever considers success, or makes his decisions or attitudes dependent upon whether something is futile or certain of success, is already corrupt.  Then authenticity no longer means his personal encounter with what is real; it is rather his personal dependence upon success, upon being heard, on popularity and applause, and on the roar of the great throngs.  He is already corrupt.  And woe if the prophets are mute out of fear that their word might not be heeded.
John the Baptist had great love for God and no fear of his fellow man. He cared only in serving God and, in turn, serving and loving his fellow man. And sometimes that meant pointing out their sin, their hypocrisy, letting others know that unless they change, they are headed for eternal damnation. And nothing would stop John the Baptist, not fear of death or death itself. He could have played "nice" with Herod, but instead he took the fearless road of serving God.

There is much we could take from the example of John the Baptist to apply to the situation in which the Church finds herself today in the United States.  The Church is facing an enemy who wants to effectively destroy her.  We have an enemy who espouses evil and calls it good.  This is no time for "dialog" and "civility."  It is highly unlikely that John the Baptist, or even Father Alfred Delp, would spend a night of fun and frivolity with Barack Obama as Cardinal Dolan is planning. As Father Delp wrote, the prophet must be willing to say:  ""Non licit: That is wrong because it is inauthentic and is not in accordance with the divine order."  John the Baptist would not be talking about "religious freedom."  He would be talking about good and evil, pointing out the sin that threatens to destroy millions of souls. 

Our Bishops need the fearlessness of John the Baptist.  He called out Herod because he knew that there is no "dialog" with evil.  Evil must be called out for what it is and dealt with accordingly, even if it means giving our lives, as both Father Alfred Delp and John the Baptist did.  As Father Delp warned us:
Futility or ineffectiveness do not dispense one from speaking the truth, declaring what is wrong, and standing up for what is right and just. .  . .Whoever considers success, or makes his decisions or attitudes dependent upon whether something is futile or certain of success, is already corrupt. Then authenticity no longer means his personal encounter with what is real; it is rather his personal dependence upon success, upon being heard, on popularity and applause, and on the roar of the great throngs. He is already corrupt. And woe if the prophets are mute out of fear that their word might not be heeded.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...