Representatives of God

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is doing so much good, so many miracles and teachings that people take notice and Jesus becomes, if you may say, a popular guy. Because of his popularity Herod wanted to know who he was. Who was this person everyone was talking about? The crowds didn’t quite know exactly who Jesus was. Some thought he was John the Baptist. Others thought he was Elijah or another ancient prophet risen. They may not have gotten his name correct but, one thing sticks out, they associated Jesus with good things. In the parallel passage in Matthew, Herod says that “mighty powers are at work in him” because he resembled John the Baptist. But, it’s not Jesus who is like John.

It was John who was like Jesus.

It was Elijah who was like Jesus.

It was Moses who was like Jesus.

People knew these great prophets and knew of the good they did. The people associated the mighty works that Jesus was doing with the good works of the prophets before him because John the Baptist, Elijah and Moses all did good works that reflected God. Jesus as second person of the trinity is God.

As a young child I remember going on field trips and being told that we needed to be on our best behavior because we represented the school. As an adult I’m being told that my demeanor at meetings and conferences reflects back on my company. Recently at a Frassati meeting for our next mission trip (Jamaica 2020!) we had a conversation on how the laity set the example for the religious which we invite to mission with us. This made me stop and ponder. We are the ones to set the example. Have you thought about how your actions constitute how someone views the Church? We represent something so much greater than schools or businesses, we represent God. Jesus told us to behave in such a way that when people saw us and witnessed our good deeds they would glorify our Heavenly Father.

Look in the mirror. Do you see Jesus?

Live your life in such a righteous way that those who do not know God may come to know Him through you.

Image Credit: Stained glass window, at St.Andrew’s R.C. Church, of John the Baptist, Moses and, Elijah. [Public Domain]

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]

Hidden Fruits

He went back across the Jordan
to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.
Many came to him and said,
“John performed no sign,
but everything John said about this man was true.”
And many there began to believe in him.
—John 10:40–42

Often, we do not see the fruits of our good works. We may plant a seed, for instance, by witnessing our faith to others, but true conversion will not come from us. It can only come through an encounter with Jesus. John the Baptist witnessed to the One who was to come, but many did not believe him. However, they remembered his words when they met Jesus Himself, and when they stood in Jesus’s presence, suddenly they saw John’s words in a prophetic light. John’s witness laid the groundwork for the moment of conversion that would come later, when they would meet Jesus face to face and recognize in Him the fulfillment of so many promises.

Let us not be discouraged when it seems are efforts to do God’s work are not yielding results. When we serve Him faithfully, in joy and gratitude, our efforts will never be wasted. We may not see the effects, but we can trust that God is using each of our actions—even our apparent failures—to build up His Kingdom. He takes the seeds we have planted and pours His water out upon them, bringing new life into the barren fields of our fallen humanity.

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is a perfect example of this. During his lifetime, no one knew how much time he devoted to the poor in his community. Most likely, even he did not realize the extent to which he had affected so many souls and brought them toward Christ, and his family certainly had no idea. Not until the day of his funeral, that is, when they were shocked to find the streets flooded with mourners. So many people had been touched by Pier Giorgio’s everyday attitude of joyful service. He had gone out into the city and shown people an example of Christlike love, which laid the groundwork for them to encounter Christ Himself.

Not one of our actions is small or insignificant in the eyes of God. Any act done with great love, however little it may seem, can plant a seed. Even when we do not see those seeds sprout before our eyes, they are there. At every moment of our lives, we have the chance to prepare the way of the Lord and make a place for Him in the world around us.

The Forerunner

Gospel reading: Mark 6:17-29
Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison
on account of Herodias,
the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod,
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him
and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
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.
She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday,
gave a banquet for his courtiers,
his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.
Herodias’ own daughter came in
and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl,
“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her,
“I will grant you whatever you ask of me,
even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request,
“I want you to give me at once
on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
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.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it,
they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

Today is a peculiar and peculiarly brutal feast day, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. (Side note: This was one of the two choices that Aidan and I could have gotten married, and we chose August 1st instead because 1. It was sooner than August 29th, and 2. We felt a little… weird about the prospect of sharing this feast day with our wedding day.) This is a peculiar feast day because saints’ feast days, at least in the Roman Catholic Church (I’m not sure about Eastern orthodox feast days), are usually celebrated on the day of their death, because that’s when their race was finished and they passed into eternal life. But St. John the Baptist also has a feast day for his birth. I am just learning that this is because he was freed from original sin in the moment he “leapt in the womb” because of the proximity of Jesus in Mary’s womb, and thus, was born into this world without original sin. The only other feast day for another nativity other than Christ’s in Mary’s own nativity, because she too was born into this world, but also conceived without original sin.

While I don’t know the theology behind what it means exactly to be freed of original sin, what can I observe is that this is a privilege reserved to only Mary and St. John the Baptist, and probably because of their proximity to Jesus’ mission; God was giving them an indispensable tool to fight that same mission alongside Christ, and in the case of St. John the Baptist, act as the “forerunner” of Christ. And this is why we celebrate specifically the Passion of St. John the Baptist today: this passion preceded His Passion.  

There are many parallels between St. John the Baptist’s passion and Christ’s passion: 

Both St. John the Baptist and Jesus were… 

  • … speaking truth to power
    • John was pointing out that Herodias was an illegitimate wife of Herod.
    • Jesus pointed out that many of the Pharisees were illegitimate leaders of the Jewish people. 
  • … locked up by powerful figures who were also aware of their righteousness.
    • “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody.”
    • Pontius Pilate’s wife, and arguably also Pontius Pilate, knew Jesus was a holy man and did not deserve to die. 
  • … killed at the result of a powerful man being pulled in the direction of the crowds after feeling much tension within himself over whether or not he should kill them. 
    • “The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.”
    • “Crucify him! Crucify him!” 
  • … displayed to a crowd after they were murdered
    • on a platter
    • on the Cross

There is a special relationship that John has with Jesus because we all follow Jesus, but, in a way, Jesus followed John, since he was the “forerunner of the Messiah.” In the linear line of human history, Jesus followed John, but in Salvation History that exists outside of time, Jesus’ sacrifice and Resurrection preceded and enabled St. John the Baptist to live a life of virtue.  What humility of Christ to follow his second cousin in death, and also to share a small portion of the genetic information of the blood they both shed because of their familial ties.  What humility of both St. John the Baptist and Christ, to die in such brutal and tragic ways… at the hands of men who were interiorly struck by their holiness, but torn between this faint truth within them and their earthly roles that pointed to killing as the only “solution.”  

Today, let us pray that we adopt the attitude of this “forerunner,” living on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and always attuning our lives to something greater than us. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa