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]

Treasure in Heaven

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.
But store up treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”
—Matthew 6:19–21

While reading about today’s saint, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, I couldn’t help but notice many striking similarities between him and out patron, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. Both were born into wealthy Italian families that valued success and prestige more than faith. Both grew in virtue and piety despite the circumstances of their family life. Both were deeply devoted to serving the poor and disadvantaged, sacrificing their own time, talent, and treasure to care for the less fortunate. Both were described as having embodied the virtue of purity. And finally, both died from illnesses they acquired while serving others—Pier Giorgio at twenty-four, Aloysius at just twenty-three.

The story of the lives of these two young men, both cut short in their early twenties, seems a terrible shame if you look at it through the eyes of the world. But through the eyes of God, it is a triumph. Their treasure was not their material wealth, their earthly successes, or even their youth and potential. Their treasure was in heaven. By embracing God’s will and allowing His love to radiate through their lives, they built up treasure for themselves that transcends the plane of this transient world. None of us know how many days we have left here on earth to enjoy its fleeting pleasures, but we can be confident that each work of love we offer to God knits our souls ever more closely into His eternal Kingdom.

If, therefore, we wish to fly to heaven, perishable things are to be cast aside, and these two wings of actual poverty and poverty of spirit are to be assumed, on which we may be borne to the place where our treasure is and there enjoy it.
—St. Aloysius Gonzaga

To what end?

Two things I ask of you,
deny them not to me before I die:
Put falsehood and lying far from me,
give me neither poverty nor riches;
provide me only with the food I need;
Lest, being full, I deny you,
saying, “Who is the LORD?”
Or, being in want, I steal,
and profane the name of my God.
—Proverbs 30:7-9
There’s hardly a better argument for Aristotle’s “Golden Mean” than today’s first reading. (It’s even quite possible this verse was written first).
As Catholics, we often hear a lot about avoiding excess, but not quite so much about avoiding poverty. Don’t most priests and religious take an entire vow of poverty? Then how could sacred Scripture seemingly contradict this frequent idealization of poverty, of a general “lack” of possessions in the Catholic tradition?
 As is the case with so many matters of faith, these questions boil down to a simpler one: “What do we value in life? How does that change our definitions of poverty and riches?”
If we look to Pier Giorgio Frassati, the tension between rich and poor is at play throughout much of his life. In terms of finances, he was incredibly #blessed: he was well-to-do with plenty of opportunity afforded him due to his family’s political and economic status. This type of wealth,  however, was only of value to Pier Giorgio as far as it was able to provide for his mission and for others. His bus fare was more valuable as his starving brethren’s dinner. His health was more valuable as his capability to serve the sick. Likewise, those starving in the slums are not inherently better off in spirit than those whose table is always full.
The wealthy are not Good because of their wealth. The needy are not Good because of their need.
In every discussion about possessions, riches, or poverty, their is always an implied question: “To what end?” Money may be a facilitator or an obstacle. Starvation may be redemptive suffering or unwanted agony.
If the resources you and I possess are of any value to us, we must ask the question, “To what end?” Where does our heart’s contentment lie? With riches? Than we will inevitably find ourselves asking, “Who is the LORD” (i.e. What does He matter to me?). With poverty? Than we risk envy, cynicism, and being holier-than-thou. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.”
Instead, we must pray and work to always desire relationship with the Lord. If we value the LORD above all, we can see times of feast as an opportunity to increase our gratitude and times of famine as opportunities for increased faith and prayer.
I ask that we pray tonight for a spirit akin the Psalmist in today’s responsorial:
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Remove from me the way of falsehood,
and favor me with your law.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Your word, O LORD, endures forever;
it is firm as the heavens.
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
From every evil way I withhold my feet,
that I may keep your words.
—Ps 119:29, 72, 89, 101