This week, as we remember the story of the Passion of St. John the Baptist, we seek to imitate his boldness and his confident proclamation of the truth.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
This is not a timely post. Or maybe it is… On Monday we celebrated the feast of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist. So, in that sense this reflection is two days late. On the other hand, he is such an important saint for our day that perhaps — hopefully — it remains timely.
We celebrate two feasts of the Baptist: his birth and his beheading. Providentially, the feast of his birth, June 24, falls in the midst of what we now observe as the Fortnight for Freedom. That coincidence calls attention already to the value of his witness for our times. The feast of his beheading celebrated two days ago further highlights the importance of his witness — in its content and manner.
First, the content. John testified to the Christ. “He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (Jn 1:7-8). But notice that he proclaimed the Messiah in nuptial terms. He was the friend of the Bridegroom. “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:29-30).
No surprise, then, that John should be imprisoned and martyred not for his witness to Christ directly, but for his witness to matrimony. He had spoken out against King Herod’s adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife. John was imprisoned “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’” (Mk 6:17-18). He is ultimately executed because of Herodias’s machinations. The one who died because of his witness to marriage we now recognize as a martyr for Christ. Thus John reveals how intimately united the truth of marriage is with the truth of Christ. To understand Christ is to know Him as the Bridegroom; to understand marriage is to see it pointing to the Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church.
John must have seemed absurd to risk his important mission on account of a degenerate king’s adultery. Likewise today we may seem absurd to insist on a truth that most of the culture jettisoned long ago. And yet we should, like John, be willing to look absurd. Even though the Supreme Court and now popular opinion abandon any meaning of marriage, it is still worth our speaking the truth about it. Worth it, because marriage is the fundamental cell of society — the first and smallest of all human communities. Worth it, because, as John intuited, marriage is the template for understanding the coming of the Messiah.
For as a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you (Is 62:5).
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.”
This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church (Eph 5:31-32).
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory.
For the wedding day of the Lamb has come,
his bride has made herself ready (Rev 19:7).
Lose the permanent, faithful, and fruitful love of bridegroom and bride and we lose the natural template for understanding and making known the Lord’s eternal, faithful, and life-giving love. How could John herald the Bridegroom and then turn a blind eye to the king’s scandalous “marriage”? No, John saw marriage worth dying for because of Christ. We should at least be willing to speak boldly about it.
Second, the manner of John’s witness. “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” (Mk 6:20). Another translation tells us that Herod “heard him gladly.” Herod was a conflicted man: perplexed — troubled — by the very man he liked to listen to. He knew that John’s message spelled trouble for him, his “wife,” and indeed his entire way of life. But John’s words touched something deep within Herod. He heard him gladly. John’s message reached — however faintly — within even that hardened heart.
Consider John’s boldness. Even in prison he proclaimed the Christ, the Bridegroom. He did not allow Herod’s hardness to silence him. He was confident that the truth could find a hearing in every heart. Persecution and imprisonment were no reason to remain silent. We should pray — through John’s intercession — that God grant us the same bold perseverance in our witness. Our culture bears a certain resemblance to Herod: perplexed by — sometimes even hostile to — what the Church has to say…but still willing to listen. May we play the role of the Baptist in not sparing the message, confident that even the most seemingly hostile heart is created for the truth.
Some may object that this is not an encouraging analogy. After all, Herod did have John beheaded. But the potential of martyrdom is standard issue for the Christian. John’s martyrdom should not surprise or frighten us. His example of tenacious witness should embolden us.