A Homily for the Memorial of the Passion of St John the Baptist - August 29th
“The message of the cross if foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). To be in God’s hands, to be praised and approved by Christ, to be respected by all—even by the one who arrested and imprisoned you—and yet to be so apparently abandoned by God. This seems to be the fate of St John the Baptist. He was left to sit in a prison cell, and then to be beheaded because of the impulsiveness of a king, the malice of a mother, and the caprice of a daughter. It seems like such an unheroic, anticlimactic, abrupt end for him whom our Lord praised as the greatest among the sons of women.
This must be the foolishness of the cross and the weakness of God at work together.
We have to consider this carefully, we who are also friends of the bridegroom. How does Christ save? Not always by rescue. He fortifies the human heart to surrender, to lay down its life freely. No greater love exists than that a man lay down his life for his friends. And the power that makes that surrender possible is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, from whom, in spirit, St John was never separated.
The opening prayer for the memorial of the Passion of St John the Baptist asks God for this grace: “Grant that we, too, may fight hard,” in other words, Grant that we might fight valiantly for Christ as did the holy Baptist. Each of us is up against something that requires us to “fight hard,” from ordinary human weakness to temptations to sin. We know that the victory belongs to Christ, but we also have this lingering fear: I know that I can, but I’m afraid that I won’t. I know that I can do all things in Him who strengthens me, but I’m afraid that I will back out and not fight hard.
In the Gospel of St John’s beheading, we can picture everything. There are some unique elements: the movements of a dance and the sounds of the music that accompanied it. Food is being served to many. There is a lot of drinking, a lot of foolish conversation, sinful propositions, swearing, laughter. This is a crowd of people who are not fighting hard to do anything good. We find ourselves in the midst of all types of self-indulgence: gluttony, lust, drunkenness. Then behind the scenes there is anger, retaliation, manipulation, fear, human respect. It is the ugly portrait of unredeemed humanity.
But there is one man in this Herodian palace who wants nothing to do with the celebration and the sins that it occasions. Herod’s banquet is not the wedding supper of the Lamb, and yet for one man it is. For one man alone it is the passage from bondage to freedom. It is his Passover meal.
There is one man here who believes in Jesus Christ. He believes so wholeheartedly in Christ that he is waiting in prison, prepared to give his life for Him at a moment’s notice. He is sober, self-controlled, alone, praying incessantly. While hundreds of people enjoy themselves above him—eating, drinking, laughing, singing, and dancing—St John the Baptist sits in chains.
This was a grand birthday party, and so we can expect that St John heard the sounds of the celebration echoing throughout the palace, echoing off of the walls of his dungeon cell. He is praying and at the same time the air about him is filled with the smells of food and the perfumes of the guests. He can hear the music, the men hollering, peals of laughter.
When we are at our best, when are fighting hard within ourselves for Christ, when we are doing battle against our own enemies, when we remember or imagine the attractions of the world, and yet are clinging to Christ within, then this is who we are in this Gospel scene. We are like St John the Baptist. And this is what our opening prayer is asking for.
In his lonely prison cell, St John the Baptist quietly trusts in the Lamb of God—who is physically absent, yet mystically present to him in power. The Baptist does not believe for a minute in the boisterous sounds of false human happiness bombarding him from all sides. Quietly, hiddenly, he trusts in the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He trusts in the same divine Lamb who takes away our fears to do battle and enables us to fight hard for Him, and with Him, to overcome the world.