The Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist celebrated on Thursday speaks to a critical issue in our times. Herod both resisted and violated his own conscience; he feared the opinion of the crowd more than that of God, ordering the hideous and unjust murder of John the Baptist. Unfortunately, such acts are commonly committed by some leaders and others who compromise with evil in order to survive and flourish in an evil world. The reason for John’s imprisonment and murder is what makes his death a lesson, particularly for our age.
Simply put, St. John the Baptist died because he told Herod Antipas that his “marriage” to Herodias was invalid and sinful. Herod Antipas had divorced his first wife, Phasaelis, so as to be able to marry Herodias, who had been married to his half-brother Herod II (also known as Herod Philip I). The situation is described in Scripture:
For Herod himself had ordered that John be arrested and bound and imprisoned, on account of his brother Philip’s wife Herodias, whom Herod had married. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias held a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she had been unable, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing he was a righteous and holy man (Mark 6:17-20).
Herod eventually yielded to the machinations of Herodias, and John the Baptist was murdered for upholding the sanctity of marriage. Jesus would later affirm John’s teaching and say,
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12).
Jesus suffered rebuke, even from his disciples (cfMatt 19:10), for teaching this (cfMatt 19:7), but He withstood them and rebuked their error (cf: Matt 19:8-9). St. John the Baptist died for this teaching, as did St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher.
Today there are many, even within the Church up to the highest levels of authority, who are willing to set aside or compromise this teaching, making sacramental accommodations never before imagined. While not every civil marriage is a sacramental marriage, and the church should be willing to hear evidence and potentially grant annulments in such cases, we cannot water down the Lord Jesus’ unambiguous teaching, a teaching these saints died to defend.
It is not simply an error to supplant this ancient teaching of the Lord—it is a grievous error. It is grievous because, intentionally or not, it diminishes the deaths of these glorious martyrs who loved and revered God too much to flatter men, even powerful ones. They suffered for this truth in a way that most today are not willing to suffer. This teaching, as the disciples imply, is a hard one (Matt 19:10), but how can we set aside something that Jesus insisted upon and for which these martyrs died?
The Church must have a pastoral stance for the divorced and remarried through a willingness to investigate their situations and grant annulments where appropriate. Further, we can recognize that not all situations are the same; not all acted in bad faith or with malice. However, we cannot set aside the truth of the Gospel to do this. Sometimes the answer must be that we cannot, at this time, extend the sacraments to them. We can still hold them close and encourage them to pray, attend Mass, and beseech God, until such time as they are willing to live as brother and sister. We can do nothing less because Jesus teaches this clearly.
At the Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist, we do well to remember and cling to the truth for which he died.
But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appeareth? This is the cry that goes up from the final pages of the Old Testament (Mal 3:2). The Lord himself gives the answer:
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom! (Mal 4:5-6)
With these words the Old Testament ends.
The New Testament opens in the desert near the banks of the River Jordan, with John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says, He is the Elijah who was to come (Mt 11:14). In John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah figure, who was to come to prepare the hearts of the people for the great coming of the Messiah.
All of this leads us to this Sunday’s Gospel, in which John the Baptist summons the faithful to repentance so that they will be ready when the Messiah arrives. Those of us who want to be ready also need to go into the wilderness and listen to John’s message: Prepare the way of the Lord! Although only the Lord can finally get us ready, we must be able to say to Him, “I’m as ready as I can be.”
Let’s look at this Gospel reading in three stages, going into the wilderness with John the Baptist as our teacher:
1. Context – Luke sets forth the context meticulously: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
What’s going on here? Why all the specifics? It almost seems as if we are reading an ancient Middle Eastern phone book or a “Who’s Who in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Yes, notice the following:
The Prestige– You might say that this is a parade of the prestigious, a roll call of royalty, a list of leaders! There is an emperor (i.e., the federal government), a local governor (i.e., the state government), three tetrarchs (state and local officials), and two religious (and secular) leaders. Anybody who is anybody is in the list, yet it was not to any of them that the Word of God came.
The Person– It was John the Baptist, the simple man in the desert, to whom the Word came. Who? He was not on anyone’s list! John the who? Where do you say he lives? He doesn’t live in the palace or even in Jerusalem? Recall these Scripture passages:
But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:27-29).
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure (Luke 10:21).
He has lifted up the lowly, and the rich he has sent away empty. To this simple, unlettered man, the Word of God came, and many went out to hear him speak the Word of God in wisdom.
The Place – Where is the Word of God proclaimed? Where is John the Baptist found? Where will Jesus appear? In a palace? In the “Ivy League” town of Jerusalem? No indeed; not in a palace, not in some air-conditioned environment, not in a place of power, but in a place of vulnerability, where one experiences one’s limitations. In the desert, neediness reaches out and grabs you. Yes, it is in a hot desert that the prophet was found.
It is in this hostile climate that we go to hear the call and feel its power. Do you understand the context? It is not be overlooked. The context is not found in the halls of power; it is found in the desert, where thirst and hunger hit rich and poor alike. It is here that the Word of God is found and heard.
2. Call – The text says, John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert.
Here we have a basic biblical call, “Repent and believe in the good news!” John said this, but so did Jesus in His opening call: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:14 -15)
There must be balance in preaching. Repent and believe the good news! Modern thinking and practice have strayed from this kerygmatic balance between “Repent” and “Believe the good news!” Many today only want to hear or proclaim the “good news.” The good news only makes sense, though, if we understand that we are in dire need of a divine physician. Repenting sets the stage for the good news.
As we have discussed in other posts, metanoia means more than moral conversion. It means, more literally, to have one’s thinking changed (meta = change, noia = thought), to have one’s mind renewed, to think in a new way. The basic message is to have our mind converted from worldly self-satisfaction and self-righteousness and to be convinced of our need for forgiveness and for a savior. Yes, we are sinners in need of a savior. We are bound for eternal death and destruction and cannot save ourselves. There is good news, though: the Savior is here, even at the door! We must arise and be ready to answer when He knocks.
Our modern world, concerned more with comfort and relief than with healing, needs to experience something of the desert. There’s nothing like it to remind us of our frailty and neediness. Today in the Church we often try to make everyone feel comfortable; we don’t want to risk talking about sin or other controversial topics because it might unsettle someone. Where’s the desert in that? John wasn’t found in some air-conditioned marble palace. He was in the searing desert with no creature comforts to be found. There was and is just the call to come to a new mind, to reorder misplaced priorities, to surrender self-righteousness, and to accept that we are frail sinners who need a savior.
With the “bad news” established, the good news makes sense—and it really is good news: the savior is near, even at the door. However, we have to go out into the desert and listen to a humble man, not one of the rich and powerful. We must listen to John, a man clothed in camel hair and subsisting on wild honey and locusts.
He does proclaim good news, but we must be ready for it.
3. Content – What does it mean to repent? John says, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Notice the elements of the content:
Ready– The text says, Prepare the way of the Lord. This is a hectic season; we’re all getting ready for Christmas, but mostly in a social way (buying presents, going to parties, and decorating the house). Will we be spiritually ready for Christmas? We know how to get ready for a lot of things. We prepare for tax day. We make sure to be on time for work. We know how to catch a plane. We know how to get to a movie or a sporting event at the right time. We spend years getting ready for careers. Why don’t we spend more time getting ready for God? The one thing that is most certain is that we will die one day and stand before God. Are you ready? As the text says, Prepare the way of the Lord! This world will pass away, but the things of God remain. Careers and promotions are not certain, but death and judgment are. Why do we get ready for uncertain, worldly things and yet not spend time on spiritual things?
Right– The text says, make straight his paths. The winding roads shall be made straight! A winding road is a symbol of shifting priorities, of waywardness, of a heart that is not steadfast and straight. Too often we are all over the moral map; we are inconsistent and crooked. Scripture says,
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prov 3:6).
Put away from you crooked speech and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil (Prov 4:24-27).
Consider this example. If I am driving from Washington, D.C. to New York City and see a sign that says, “South to Richmond,” I know that following the sign would be foolish; it would lead me in the wrong direction. We know how to set a course for worldly destinations and how to avoid going the wrong way, but what about our course home to Heaven? We might sing, “I’m on my way to Heaven and I’m so glad the world can’t do me no harm,” but then we see an exit marked, “Sin City, Next Exit” and sure enough we take it. Why? Many of us are outraged to hear that we can’t just go whichever way we please, do whatever we want, and still end up in Heaven. Then comes all the anger directed at the Church, the Bible, the preacher, and anyone who might remind us that we have to make straight the ways of the Lord. You can’t go down to go up. You can’t turn left or right and say you’re going straight. Thus, the text says that we should make straight the way of the Lord.
Reverent– The text says, Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The mountain represents pride. Every sin is rooted in pride, because it asserts that our way is better than God’s. We think that we know better than God. We are modern; Scripture is old fashioned. We are with it while the Church is out of touch. This is the mountain of pride and we must let it go. God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. There is nothing that excludes us more from Heaven than pride, thinking that we know better than God does.
The valley symbolizes low self-esteem and despair. It may not be obvious, but a lot of sins come from low self-esteem. For example, we gossip and denigrate others because we think that if they are brought low, we will feel better about our own self. We also give way to peer pressure easily because we can only feel better about our own self if we “fit in” and are approved by others. Sometimes we’ll even sin in order to accomplish that. Some young women will fornicate for the price of a nice meal, selling their bodies for less than a prostitute would—all because they fear that they won’t be loved if they don’t. Young men pressure young women and disrespect them because they think that they must in order to “be a man.” Many young men join gangs—even drop out and commit crimes—all to “belong” and be “cool.” Low self-esteem is an ugly business that leads us to commit many sins. These valleys have to be filled in.
The solution to both pride and low self-esteem is fear of the Lord, reverence. The fear of human beings and what they will think is at the root of much sin. That is why the Scriptures admonish us to fear the Lord instead. When I fear the Lord, I don’t need to fear anyone else. When I reverence the Lord, my pride is dissolved. Mountains are made low and valleys are leveled when we have a reverential and loving fear of the Lord.
Refined– The text says, the rough ways shall be made smooth. Rough ways are filled with obstacles, stumbling blocks, and pitfalls. What are some of the things that hinder our ways? What are some of our obstacles and pitfalls?
What are some of the specific things that cause me to stumble? Are they habits, excesses, or unlawful pleasures? What are the things that make me rough and difficult to live with? Am I unyielding, unforgiving, unmerciful, or unkind? Am I lax, frivolous, unspiritual, or unaccountable? What are the rough ways in me and in my path that need smoothing? What trips me up? What in me needs softening and smoothing?
Recognizing– The text says, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The Greek word used in this passage is ὁράω (horao). While it is translated as “see,” it involves an active receptivity, more in the sense of looking than merely having something overshadow us or cross our visual path. The danger is that we can close our eyes. Thus, we must remain active and receptive. We must look for salvation and redemption; we must seek it. It is a gift, but we must open our eyes and accustom ourselves to its light and to its ways.
Learning the ways of the faith is very much like learning a language. Until we learn the letters, the meaning of the words, and the grammar, a different language can look or sound like gibberish. For many today, the ways of faith are just that: gibberish. For us who believe, though, because we have been made ready for God, because we make straight his paths, because we reverence God and reject roughness, we are able to recognize our redemption and rejoice in its presence.
We briefly step out of the “green” of Ordinary Time to celebrate the birth of the last prophet of the Old Testament, St. John the Baptist. In so doing, we not only commemorate a great prophet of history, but we also consider the office of prophet itself, one to which we are summoned by our baptism.
As we consider John the Baptist, we also learn of our own duties as prophets and as those who must be open to the proclamations of those who are appointed prophets to us. Let’s consider four aspects of the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist.
1. His PREPARING PURPOSE – In the first reading today, The Church applies these words of Isaiah to John the Baptist to describe his purpose:
The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. … You are my servant, he said to me, through whom I show my glory … to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:1-6).
The Lord wanted to save His people, to restore and raise them up. But as He had warned in the Book of Malachi, it was necessary to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah, for should He come and find them unprepared, there would be doom.
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. And all the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble. For the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the Lord Almighty.
“So, remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.”
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom” (Mal 4:1-6).
In His love, God promised to send an Elijah figure to prepare the people for the great and terrible day of the Lord, so that they could not only endure it but even consider it bright and sunny with its warm and healing rays. John the Baptist was that Elijah figure. Jesus, who came to cast a fire upon the earth (cf Lk 12:49), tells us this truth:
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men [also] attack it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear (Matt 11:12-15).
In other words, it’s time to get ready. Either the Lord will come to us or we will go to Him. Not wanting us to be lost, God sent Elijah and John the Baptist. He sends the Church. He sends parents, priests, and teachers. The great day of judgment dawns for each of us, and in His love, the Lord sends prophets to prepare us.
2 . His PENITENTIAL PROCLAMATION– John heralded [Jesus’] coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance (Acts 13:24). Matthew reports John’s words: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near! … Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him (Matt 3:1).
At the heart of getting ready to meet God is repentance. In recent decades, some in the Church have soft-peddled the themes of repentance, human sinfulness, and worldliness, but the true prophet cannot prescind from them. God is holy, and the holiest among us are the first to acknowledge that it is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living and holy God. He is surely rich in mercy, and the reason for that is that we are sinners.
Repentance is more than a reform of our moral behavior. The Greek word translated here as “repent” is metanoite, which means more literally to come to a new mind, to come to a new way of thinking, to have different and better priorities, to exchange worldly notions for heavenly wisdom.
A true prophet is steeped in God’s Word and the teachings of the Church. A true prophet preaches and announces what God reveals and sees everything else in the light of it. A true prophet summons God’s people to truth that He proclaims, and exposes lies and errors for what they are.
In summoning God’s people to repent, the prophet seeks not only to reform and inform them but also to transform them by God’s grace. If we are transformed, then when God summons us to His presence we will already be adjusted to the temperature of His glory, our eyes will be adjusted to the radiance of His love, and our souls will be conformed to the values of His heavenly kingdom.
Repent! That is, come to whole new mind, a new way of thinking and understanding, a new heart, a new love. Come to a new behavior and a new way to walk that makes “straight paths” for and to the Lord.
3. His PERSISTENT POINTING to Christ – John the Baptist was a kind of rock star in his own time; it is difficult to overestimate his renown. Such fame often leads to megalomania and personal disaster, but John humbly points to Christ: What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.
It was John who pointed and said, “Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (Jn 1:29)
The true prophet points only to Christ, only to God. John did not look to his own glory or fame, he looked to Jesus. He did not try to figure what it would cost him to follow Jesus, he just looked and pointed to Jesus. If anyone pointed out John’s glory and gifts, he simply pointed to Jesus and said, He must become greater; I must become less (Jn 3:30).
The true prophet is turned toward Christ, looks for Him, and eagerly points to Him.
4. His PRESENT PERSON– John the Baptist was a real person who ministered to the real people of his time in order to get them ready to meet Jesus Christ. Here are two questions to consider:
Who is John the Baptist for you?
The Church certainly has this role of being like John the Baptist in preparing us to meet God. The Church proclaims repentance and points always to Christ. Many scoff at the Church because of her role and because of the gospel. Certain aspects of the gospel go in season and out of season. Yet, though she be a voice as of one crying in the wilderness, still she prophesies: “Repent and believe the Good News. Prepare the way for the Lord. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Seek that which is above, rather than the things of earth.” Yes, the Church is surely “The Prophet” for us.
Others such as parents, teachers, and pastors also play this role of John in our life. The Church is not an abstraction, she has members who take up her voice. The first place that most people hear of Jesus is not from a papal encyclical or even the Bible. They hear of Jesus at their mother’s knee, from their father’s voice, from a religious sister, or from a teacher. All these people together say, “This is the way; walk in it.” Yes, John the Baptist is still present in the prophetic ministry of the Church and others.
How are you John the Baptist to others?
Just as you have had the benefit of the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist from others, so are you called to take it up for others. To whom have you witnessed? To whom have you declared, “This is the way; walk in it?” To whom have you have you said, “Repent and believe the Good News?”
When you were baptized you were given the office of prophet. Have you taken up this role? Have others been made ready through you to meet God?
God had John the Baptist long ago; whom does He have now? It looks like you. You are John the Baptist!
Here’s John the Baptist, complete with a British accent!