The Voice Pointing to the Word of Justice, Truth and Mercy, Beheading of St. John the Baptist, August 29, 2016

Fr Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Memorial of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist
August 29, 2016
1 Cor 2:1-5, Ps 119, Mk 6:17-29

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today we celebrate the final way by which St. John the Baptist made straight the paths of the Lord. He had been his precursor in birth, making a joy-filled in utero proclamation of Christ’s presence. He was his forerunner in preaching the message of conversion, with the Word made flesh eventually echoing what the “Voice of One crying out in the wilderness” was crying out: repent, change your ways, have a revolution in your conduct. He was his predecessor in the work of baptizing, showing in a non-sacramental anticipation what Christ himself would sacramentally institute, do and send his Church to continue to do to the ends of the earth and the end of time. And today we mark how he was his precursor in imprisonment, death and in a vague sense his resurrection, with Herod saying of Jesus the very words that the angels at the tomb would say, “He has been raised from the dead,” applying them to Jesus whom he viewed in the paranoia coming from a guilty conscience as John the Baptist redivivus. 
  • Tertullian said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of future Christians, and the blood of this protomartyr was what prepared the way for Christ’s own martyrdom and the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the apostles, and so many others after Christ. Christ himself made that link after the Transfiguration, when Peter, James and John asked him about whether Elijah whom they had just seen speaking to Jesus would precede Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus replied, “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands” (Mt 17:12).
  • So we need to look at John the Baptist’s martyrdom in a Christological key. On the one hand John’s beheading seems like a sickening tragedy. But it contains within a power and a wisdom, as St. Paul told us on Friday, and continues today in the first reading. Like St. Paul, St. John the Baptist didn’t come “with sublimity of words or [worldly] wisdom,” because he likewise knew only “Christ crucified,” foreshadowed in John’s seeing Jesus as the “Lamb of God who had come to take away the sins of the world,” something that would be culminated on Calvary at the Crucifixion. This is key for us to grasp in the Jubilee of Mercy, because John’s work was to prepare everyone for the mercy of God. We see that even in how he allowed himself to become a martyr in the call to conversion so that Herod and Herodias might open themselves up to receive the merciful love that Lamb would be crucified to give. The martyrdom of the Friend of the Bridegroom happened because he pointed out the truth about Herod and Herodias’ putative marriage: John was trying to prepare even Herod and Herodias through conversion for the real love they were seeking down a dead end: to marry the true Bridegroom. What John preached by his suffering and death was a foretelling of what Jesus himself would do out of love for the Bride.
  • John had reminded Herod Antipas that it was not lawful for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife. The book of Leviticus had said clearly, “You shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife, for that would be a disgrace to your brother” (Lev 18:16). Herod had gone to Rome to visit his brother and while there seduced his sister-in-law, persuaded her to leave his brother, divorced his own wife and married her. To make the incestuous matters worse, Herodias was Philip’s and Herod’s niece as well. For all these reasons it was not right for Herod to have Herodias as his wife. With a string of violent verbs, the evangelist tells us that Herod had John arrested, bound, and imprisoned. He wanted to kill him, St. Matthew tells us, but he feared the people. But eventually he would kill him when his vindictive bride pimped her princess daughter to do a striptease before her step-father and uncle and all his drunken courtiers to seduce him into vowing to give her anything she wanted. And when she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Herod gave the command. And to the Aramaic tune of Happy Birthday to You, the soldiers brought in, instead of birthday cake, the Baptist’s severed head and presented it to this lustful, power-hungry, self-important little assassin. But while that day was a tragedy for Herod and all those participating in his Satanic liturgy where lust ruled instead of sacrificial love, where immoral oaths dominated over the truth, it was a triumph for John the Baptist, in essence, his spiritual birthday in which he was born into eternity and we believe leaped for joy again.
  • John the Baptist’s whole life was a witness to Christ Crucified, to the Lamb of God who takes away sins, to the love of the Bridegroom who would lay down his life to save his Bride’s. He tried to get the Bride ready to receive the love of the Bridegroom. His whole life was directed toward Christ and toward this mission, a mission he was willing to decrease in fulfilling so that Christ would increase to become all in all. His life is a challenge for our own, for us to examine whether we’re really living in a way in which we point to Christ, whether we are living for him and dying for him, whether we seek to give voice to his Word, to point him out, to bring others to him, to help others receive his love. In a special way, in today’s confusion concerning the truth about marriage, family, love, sexuality and even what it means to be a man or woman, it’s key for us to ponder John’s triumphant death today, his knowing Christ crucified in his own flesh by his willingness to die pointing out the mystery Christ took on our flesh to reveal. This is what we begged God the Father to give us at the beginning of Mass today, when we asked, “O God, who willed that Saint John the Baptist should go ahead of your Son both in his birth and in his death, grant that as he died a Martyr for truth and justice, we, too, may fight hard for the confession of what you teach.” We’re asking for the grace to fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith and spread it to others.
  • The Mass, in which John the Baptist’s words echo until the end of time indicating to us the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is where we enter into communion with Christ crucified. This is where we receive the Body and Blood of the Bridegroom in the one-flesh and even one-Spirit consummation of his spousal union with the Bride. This is where we decrease so that he may increase. This is where we are strengthened to become martyrs, witnesses, to Christ. This is where we’re learn how to give our lives for the truth, for justice for God and others, and for Mercy. This is where we receive something far more valuable than even 100 kingdoms of Herod!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 1 COR 2:1-5

When I came to you, brothers and sisters,
proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.

Responsorial Psalm PS 119:97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102

R. (97) Lord, I love your commands.
How I love your law, O LORD!
It is my meditation all the day.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
Your command has made me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
I have more understanding than all my teachers
when your decrees are my meditation.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
I have more discernment than the elders,
because I observe your precepts.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
From every evil way I withhold my feet,
that I may keep your words.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
From your ordinances I turn not away,
for you have instructed me.
R. Lord, I love your commands.

Alleluia MT 5:10

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MK 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.

 

Caravaggio-Beheading-of-Saint-John-the-Baptist