The Passion of John the Baptist

“Mom, can I eat a grasshopper to show God I love Him—like John the Baptist?” At age four, little Nicholas is ready to be a disciple of today’s saint.

It is more difficult to see what compelled more grown-up minds to follow Saint John the Baptist. Here was a man living in the wastes of the desert. His diet was insects and wild honey. His clothes were camel’s hair and a leather girdle. He had no power or position but only poverty as his identity. At first glance, his appearance would suggest more lunatic than life coach.

And yet we are told: “There went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 4:5)

What attracted them?

John was clear in his mission—he was not the Messiah. He was to prepare the way for the Messiah. “I baptize with water, but He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” “I am not worthy to unfasten his sandal strap…” “He must increase; I must decrease.”

John’s poverty was not merely external. He was aware of who he was, but also of who he was not. He depended on God for everything. He allowed himself to be humanly weak in order that he might be strengthened by God. Everything in his life was ordered not to self-promotion but to ushering in the kingdom of God.

There is a measure of freedom in not caring what others think, but by itself that is not holiness.  Foolish or insane people don’t care what others think either. John the Baptist did care what God thought, and that is what fueled his passion.

“You brood of vipers!” he challenged the Pharisees. “It is not lawful for you to marry your brother’s wife!” he told King Herod. His mission was to preach repentance, to “make straight the way of the Lord.” To prepare for God, to make a path for Him to come, to clear out of the way any obstacles, especially pride and sin.

In contrast, King Herod, with a literal kingdom at his disposal, was nonetheless deeply dependent on the opinion of others. He feared John’s message, and so had him put in prison, but was afraid that he might be right, and afraid of what might happen to him, or what the people might say, if he did something to him. “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20)

Herod’s mistress—i.e. his brother’s wife whom he had unlawfully married—hated John and looked for a way to silence him forever. And so it was that she prompted her daughter to dance at a banquet, so titillating Herod that he rashly and publicly promised her whatever she might ask—even half his kingdom. At her mother’s behest she requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

“The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her. So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head.” (Mark 6:26)

What is deeply disturbing about this story is that we see a gruesome act carried out, not as an act of power, but of weakness. It is not a story of personal malice or vengeance or even violent temper. Instead we see a very weak man—controlled first by his passion of lust and then by his fear of human opinion—swayed to commit a most barbaric act about which he “knows better.” The bloody head on the platter shows us what following the spirit of the world will lead to.

Today’s feast invites us not only to admiration of John the Baptist or to condemnation of Herod but to an examination of our own passions. What are the motivating forces behinds our actions, our lives? Are we seeking God’s kingdom, or our own?

Interestingly in Mark’s Gospel this atrocious banquet is followed immediately by the feeding of the multitudes with five loaves and two fish. Jesus has another banquet in mind—in which, like John, He will give His life, to feed us with Himself.

Head of John the Baptist

Image Credit: Caravaggio [Public domain]

Rely on Him

Rely not on your wealth; say not: “I have the power.” Rely not on your strength in following the desires of your heart (Sirach 5: 1-2).

As a teacher, I often have to tell my students what not to do… I often go throughout the day saying, “Don’t poke your neighbor,” or “Don’t run in the classroom,” or “No! Don’t eat that!” However, in today’s First Reading, it is my turn to be told what not to do. I hear God say, “Don’t rely on yourself,” which is a reminder that I often need.

It is so difficult to let go, to move away from relying on ourselves. Like children, we need constant reminders of what not to do and what we should do instead. In today’s Gospel, we learn how to detach ourselves from self-reliance and different temptations that prevent us from growing closer to God.

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire (Mark 9: 43).

This image really wakes us up to the importance of looking at the world through God’s eyes. The earthly things that we may cling to with our two hands are nothing in comparison to God’s salvation. The Scriptures, along with our life experiences, continually teach us that we cannot rely on our own strength or possessions. Through our joys and sufferings, we learn to fully rely on God.

As Lent approaches, let us pray about what prevents us from following God wholeheartedly. Let us ask ourselves, “What do I need to cut out of my life to follow God more closely, to rely on Him alone?”

Hiding in Paradise

A two-year-old niece makes many things more fun, but Hide-And-Go-Seek is not one of them.  Zippy thinks that if she closes her eyes and can’t see me, then I can’t see her either.   Sometimes, to make it more challenging, she puts something over her face as if for a prolonged game of Peak-A-Boo.  Or, once I’ve really hidden—behind the refrigerator, or the door, or under the bed—she will hide there herself.  Again, and again, and again.  Each time, I am supposed to play surprised.

When Adam and Eve hide in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit, God asks “’Where are you?” Surely the omnipotent God already knows.  So why does God ask?  And why does He follow Adam’s answer with still another question: “Who told you that you were naked?”  God wants them to see them as they are, naked and hiding from Him.

In my last reflection I wrote about the strategies of the Opposition Voice, whose goal it is to separate the Father from His children.  He does this first by getting them to reject God.  His next strategy is to get them to believe that God will reject them.

In tempting them with the forbidden fruit, the Opposition had begun to sow doubt in God’s goodness, and thereby to instill a fear of dependence on God.  Adam and Eve are initially tempted to choose self-sufficiency—achieving God-like status on their own, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Once they have eaten the fruit, the voice continues to promote self-sufficiency versus dependence on God.  They seek to cover their nakedness and dependence, and to hide from God rather than trust in His goodness.

As they lose sight of the God in whose image they are, they lose sight of His image in themselves.  “Guilt says you made a mistake; shame says you are a mistake” notes Gregory Cleveland, OMV.  And so to cover the mistake that they think they have become, Adam and Eve dress themselves in fig leaves.

It is an obvious strategy of the Opposition to make sin appear good, or perhaps necessary, or at the very least, not a big deal.  In a more subtle strategy, after our sin, the Opposition seeks to make our sin bigger than God.

After Genesis 3, we don’t get a visual on the serpent again until the Book of Revelation, when the seven-headed ten-horned dragon is at war with the Woman and Her Offspring.  But the Opposition Voice echoes through the books in between, spoken sometimes from without, and sometimes from within.  The first sin is for man to try to become like God on their own.  The second (and all subsequent) sins is to try to become like God on our own.

This is the mistake of the Pharisees, whom Jesus warns against in today’s Gospel.  “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” He tells His disciples.   The disciples are confused, thinking He has rebuked their forgetfulness (once again, they don’t have enough bread).  He recalls to them to the multiplication of the loaves, and asks “Do you still not understand?”

He is bringing them back not just to a previous lack, but to God’s providence in that lack.  It is God who provides everything.  He provides the grace to avoid sin, but also the grace to repent and to return once we have sinned.  He is the source of good, and the source of mercy when we are not good.

The Pharisees wish to adhere to a system of goodness based in the Law and traditions; to systematize a way to heaven with ritual and righteousness.  They cover themselves with the fig leaves of outer conformity to the Law, but like small children with their eyes closed, they presume that God cannot see the truth within them.

It is not the good deeds of the Pharisees that upsets Jesus; it is their reliance on them, versus reliance on God.  At its heart, it is still denial of God’s Fatherhood.

“Where are you?… Who told you that you were naked?”  Because man is now afraid and unable to approach and depend on God, God comes to earth as a naked baby, completely dependent on us.  And He shows us what dependence on humanity alone will lead to, when He is once again naked, stretched out on the Cross.

 

 

 

 

Other Paradise Trees