Readings1 Thes 4:9-11; Ps 98; Mk 6:17-29
Today we celebrate the passion or martyrdom of John the Baptist, the one whom Jesus called the greatest of all men, the greatest of prophets.
I suspect that most of us really don’t think very much about John the Baptist. And John’s probably very happy that we don’t. After all, in his humility, a humility rarely duplicated, he considered himself no more than a sign pointing away from himself, pointing the way to Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease” [Jn 3:30].
John focused solely on Jesus: in his birth and his life, even in his death. John’s birth and life were a signal to humanity, an announcement: the Lord is coming; be prepared. Indeed, John announced the Lord’s coming even before he was born. As Luke tells us, when a pregnant Mary traveled to Judea and approached Elizabeth, John leapt in his mother’s womb, greeting the unborn Jesus. [Lk 1:41].
|Elizabeth and Mary Rejoice|
Even before birth, John was moved by the Holy Spirit to fulfill his life’s mission. Some theologians have suggested that John, at the moment he greeted Jesus, was baptized by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, born without original sin. But whether or not this is true, John was still called to announce the Lord from the very beginning.
At his birth John’s father, Zechariah, proclaimed that his son will be “prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways” [Lk 1:76]. And so John’s life was totally committed to preparing the world for Jesus, the Lamb of God, preaching the baptism of repentance.
Imagine if you can the extraordinary impression the figure and message of John the Baptist made in Jerusalem’s highly charged atmosphere. Many Jews must have thought, “At last we have a prophet again.” What a furor he must have raised. Consumed by his mission to prepare God’s chosen people for the arrival of their Messiah, He roused them from their complacency and turned them from their petty concerns to the things of God.
In his Gospel, Mark makes John’s impact clear: “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins” [Mk 1:5].
“…all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…” Not a few, not a lot, but all. Yes, John had a tremendous impact. He could have claimed to be the Messiah and started a major uprising, exactly what many Jews sought. This alone was reason enough for Herod to lock him up. How did Mark put it? “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody” [Mk 6:20].
Humility, righteousness and holiness were foreign to Herod. And because he couldn’t understand John, He feared him. Fear always accompanies power because the powerful fear that which threatens their power. Yes, Herod feared John’s popularity.
But before John was imprisoned, while he was still baptizing in the Jordan, Jesus came to him and allowed John to baptize Him, an event that signaled Jesus’ public ministry. This was also John’s sign to step aside, to send his disciples away, pointing to the Lamb of God [Jn 1:29].
|"Behold, the Lamb of God"|
“…the Lamb of God” were words that must have had an amazing effect on the people. After all every day lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple. But here was John, pointing at Jesus and calling Him God’s Lamb, the One who would be sacrificed for the sins of all. How this must have shocked those first-century Jews.
Jesus takes John’s disciples and turns them into saints, into miracle workers, into tireless missionaries, into priests of the New Covenant. John is the voice because Jesus is the Word.
John would die in Herod’s prison, at the whim of a spoiled daughter, a conniving wife, and a weak, drunken king. And yet, he knew his death was necessary, for only in death could he truly decrease, only in death could he ensure that Jesus would increase.
|The Beheading of St. John the Baptist|
That, brothers and sisters, is the measure of John’s life. He decreased to the point that he had nothing to say for himself and everything to say for Jesus. In losing his life, John found his life. He disappeared into greatness, just as Jesus promised.
But Jesus also says “the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” [Mt 11:11]. What a beautiful reminder for us – to remember our dignity as baptized Christians. For we are called to share God’s life through baptism and the gift of God’s grace. Of course this demands that we live according to our dignity.
Are our lives like John’s, an offering to God? God wants to fill us with His glory all the days of our lives. Like John, we too were chosen by God before we were born, chosen to proclaim God’s goodness through our lives.
Allow yourself to be touched deeply by God’s love for you. Resolve to live today out of love for God, and like John, carry this Good News wherever you go.