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St. John the Baptist: A martyr for the truth about marriage

Today’s liturgical commemoration demands the answer to a fundamental question: Have you accepted the challenge to be a long-distance runner for Christ?

"The Beheading of St. John the Baptist" (1869) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes [WikiArt.org]

Editor’s note: The following  homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on  August 29, 2017, the memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan, and was originally posted on that same day at CWR.

Many years ago a play came out called “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” the point being that the life of such an athlete is unique and requires a certain style of personality and stamina. In Christian Tradition we frequently refer to John the Baptist, whose martyrdom we celebrate today, as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus. The New Testament makes much ado about the birth of John, with equal attention given to his death.

I think John receives the attention he does because, from the very beginning, he has been identified as an ideal disciple, even though we never officially discover if he did in fact become a disciple of Jesus; we just assume he did – and rightly so, I believe. What qualities did John possess which made him so perfect for the job? Qualities which all of us should possess if we are adequately to continue John’s tradition of bearing public witness to Jesus.

John put himself and his desires in line with God’s age-old plan and purpose. So often we balk at what God wants from us because it may mean a degree of inconvenience; John put aside such considerations and even willingly accepted the reputation of a madman because of his intense pursuit of God’s commands in his life and preaching. Secondly, John believed he had been called to perform a special task, a task that was a part of God’s eternal plan. John did not try to deny the call or thwart the implementation of the plan – he cooperated. The lesson for us, especially for young people in search of a meaningful life, should be obvious. Thirdly, John was a humble pointer, with the accent on “humble”. The sign of a truly great person is that one can recognize one who is yet greater – and that was surely John. He didn’t get taken up with all the attention that was lavished on him and thus forget his goal. He remembered that his mission was to point out the Messiah to others and then to let God take over from there. Finally, John was future-oriented. He looked to the past for guidance and inspiration for the present, but he always had one foot firmly planted in the future. If he hadn’t, he would have missed Jesus Who came to him out of the future, not the past.

In John, God was beginning to do a brand new thing. As the Collect for his nativity puts it, John was to “make ready a nation fit for Christ the Lord,” a people who knew the meaning of salvation and peace. This new thing was signified by the naming of the child who was to inaugurate this new era. The child’s naming process violated all principles of Jewish tradition for he is not named after any of his forefathers – he received a whole new identity. Secondly, his name means “gift of God,” and that is exactly what the name was and exactly what he was.

The whole John-event and all the characters in the drama as it gradually unfolds, stand as a model for us in our life of faith. So often, like Zechariah, we are dumb/speechless in the face of the really important questions in life – often because, like Zechariah again, we have not put ourselves in touch with God’s master plan and may have even set ourselves against it. Zechariah’s tongue was loosed when and only when he finally accepted the fact that God did know better.

Jesus needed John in order to make His debut 2000 years ago; He needs each one of us today. Did you ever think of that? If not, make it your business to introduce God and other people to each other. Realize, too, that the person at work or in college next to you may never really know Jesus unless you, like John, “go before the Lord to prepare His ways.”

The Gospel account of John’s beheading has all the makings of a modern soap opera. Herod is a dirty old man but is yet intrigued by John. Herodias is a vengeful scorned woman. Salome is a first-century porn star, using her physical assets to garner favor. All the immorality reaches its apex in the grisly decapitation of the prophet and the handing over of his head to Salome who, in turn, passes it off to a presumably satisfied Herodias.

It is significant that the prophet who straddles the Old and New Testaments should be a martyr for the truth about marriage. The Church, throughout her history, has always tenaciously proclaimed God’s plan for marriage. So faithful has she been on this score, that she preferred to lose the Church in England at the time of Henry VIII than acquiesce to a deformation of the divine will. In our time, we encounter assaults on the dignity of marriage from society-at-large and, even more sadly, from those within the very bosom of the Church who ought to know better and thus should be teaching unabashedly: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Divorce and remarriage, fornication, adultery, same-sex unions, pornography and artificial contraception – all these strike at the divinely intended identity of marriage. Our Catholic witness – as individuals and as a community – cannot be any less courageous than that of John the Baptist. Our Catholic voice cannot be any less loud and clear than the “voice of the one crying out in the wilderness.”

Following in the footsteps of John the Baptist means being willing to go through “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by being misunderstood and rejected and even getting your head chopped off, at least figuratively. But for those who have the stamina, the ecstasy of victory prods one on past the agony of defeat, and all becomes worthwhile. Through Baptism and Confirmation, you have been given the holy vocation of being a prophet in this particular time and place; through Baptism and Confirmation, you have also been given the grace to fulfill that mission.  Today’s liturgical commemoration demands the answer to a fundamental question: Have you accepted the challenge to be a long-distance runner for Christ?

The Collect for today sums it all up quite admirably and succinctly: “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.” May it be so. Amen.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 162 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

25 Comments

  1. An aside Fr Stravinskas for a fine commentary. Salome, “From an Aramaic name which was related to the Hebrew word שָׁלוֹם (shalom) meaning “peace”. According to the historian Josephus this was the name of the daughter of Herodias. In the New Testament, though a specific name is not given, it was a daughter of Herodias who danced for Herod and was rewarded with the head of John the Baptist, and thus Salome and the dancer have traditionally been equated” (Behind the name.com). A porn star with the name Peace according to Josephus. I’ve wondered whether the Salome at the Crucifixion was the same girl. From porn star to convert? Members of Herod’s household were converts. Joanna [wife of Chuza Herod’s Maitre d] mentioned in the gospels was healed by Jesus and later supported him and his disciples in their travels, one of the women who witnessed the resurrection. And think of Herod, “When John spoke he was deeply troubled, yet attracted by his words” (Mk 6). How close had many come to conversion? The Word has great power.

  2. St. John the Baptist would not be held in very high regard were he preaching today to Herod. Judging him, and condemning him, even assuming that his new marriage was sinful as he did instead of accompanying him, giving him communion etc. But that was his life then too. During his day, the leaders of the church no doubt wished he would be quiet and stop embarrassing them, while he preached the truth that they were ashamed of and gave example of humility somewhat more profound than just calling attention to his black shoes.

  3. Thank you Fr. Stravinskas for sharing a fine homily on a great witness to the truth – who gives witness to the Church here and now.

  4. [St. John the Baptist would not be held in very high regard were he preaching today to Herod. Judging him, and condemning him, even assuming that his new marriage was sinful as he did instead of accompanying him, giving him communion etc.]

    You know Pat, this sort of snideness on your part covertly directed against the pope is profoundly disrespectful. I am not surprised that it made it past the moderators here though because it seems the conservative subculture (of which sites like this are a part of) is so full of themselves and erroneously presumes that conservatism is Catholicism. They pay lip service to the pope but when it comes to actually being taught by him, well that’s not something they will do. And what is the term for someone who refuses to submit to actual teaching of the pope? Well to “unaccompany” you here, its schism.

    To apply the same standards to folks like you that you would apply indiscriminately to all divorced and remarried folks, you would not be able to receive communion either because schismatics are not supposed to receive communion. (And yes, make no mistake about it: refusal to submit to the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff is the very textbook definition of a schismatic.) Then again, I have come to see quite clearly that unfortunately there is no shortage of Pharisees amongst conservative minded folks such as you.

    Is that sufficiently “unaccompanied” for you, Pat?

    I am sure this comment will be flagged by the moderators because passive aggressive attacks against Pope Francis like yours are allowed to post but God forbid anyone give folks like you a taste of the exact same medicine you think others should get.

    • It was not a covert reference to the pope, it was an open reference to him. Clearly I think Pope Who am I to judge would have a problem with St John the Baptist, or St Thomas Moore, or probably any saint canonized before 1970. If that’s not the case, explain how St John’s ministry qualifies as ‘accompanying’ and not rigorist pharisaism.

      News flash – the pope is not God and he is not the second coming of Christ. His preaching and every utterance is not dogma simply because he said it. Schism comes from refusal to adhere to the faith, not the pope’s sermons. Sorry. But, by all means do continue to live in your happy-land, pretending that the whole thing isn’t falling down around you.

      • Pat,

        You do not get to make up your own rules and definitions. Here is how these terms are defined by the Church (emphasis is mine):

        Can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; ***schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him***

        When the Supreme Pontiff teaches on a matter pertaining to faith and morals and does so by a clear magisterial act and you refuse to give it proper assent, you are ipso facto refusing submission to the Supreme Pontiff and are thus schismatic.

        Kindly for the sake of your soul do not present yourself for communion until you confess this sin (cf. 1. Cor 11:27-29).

        • So if i’m sleeping with another guy, it’s alright to go to communion, but if i said that the pope shouldn’t give the impression that it’s alright to sleep with another guy it’s not. Brilliant!!!

          The pope doesn’t get to change faith or morality. If you think he can do so by talking to a reporter on a plane or issuing an ambiguous exhortation – then by all means let yourself go, see what happens.

          And how does that work anyway? The other apx 260 popes were all wrong? not merciful enough?

          Any time you want to explain how St. John’s condemnation of Herod’s living arrangement would fit in with the pope’s approach (which was the point after all) – please feel free to do so.

  5. The Church remembers the heroic but tragic death of John the Baptist. Ironically Our Lord said “no man born of woman was greater than John the Baptist”.. The reason is that man was created for the Glory of God. John the Baptist died because he challenged the sinful actions of the most powerful authority in Israel who had power over life and death. Herod openly violated the Holiness of God by taking possession of his brothers wife. John took the risk of exposing before Israel the evil of its highest ruler. John the Baptist could not allow this to happen. In Eternity he wears the crown of Martyrdom. I am sure that Herod had a different end. I encourage my brothers and sisters to take up the mantel of John the Baptist and in our own time to challenge the evils perpetrated by our Government officials. The risks are there because those in power wield military and legal power. Most Germans except a few like Maximillian Kolbe. Edith Stein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, kept quiet when Hitler murdered millions of Jews and they were all sent to the death camps but before God they occupy an exalted position. St. John the Baptist pray for us…

    • Using the story of John the Baptist to bash gay marriage us an insult to both the Saint and to Our Lord who taught Love not condemnation. As a convert from the Episcopal faith I also find your jab at the Church of England mean spirited and lacking in reason as the real reason the Pope didn’t allow Henry VIII a divorce was because he had married Catherine of Aragon the daughter of the King of Spain who was needed as an ally for the Church. Please stay out of politics for God’s sake it demeans and cheapens the Saint we should be talking about who brought the Good News of Jesus Christ.

      • How, exactly, are the issues of homosexuality and marital infidelity primarily (or even exclusively) political? Seriously.

      • “Our Lord who taught Love not condemnation.”

        You idea of Our Lord appears to be a laid-back, mellow guy who’s okay with anything you want to do because, you know, “love.”

        Must be convenient to be able to ignore what God has said through the Bible and through the Church about what happens to unrepentant sinners and evildoers.

        “As a convert from the Episcopal faith”

        Convert to what? It certainly doesn’t seem to be to the Catholic Church.

        • Condemnation…when corrctly applied…IS LOVE. When Jesus told Peter,”Get thee behind me Satan” he was expressing PURE LOVE.

      • If you think the Lord taught love and not condemnation, then you do not understand the gospel. Please read John 6-8. Even a casual reading of the gospels shows that Jesus warned more about judgment than He talked about love.

      • Christ was pure love and forgave almost every category of sin while here on earth. He explicitly and implicitly taught that sexual relations outside a sacramental marriage were sinful. On multiple occasions he forgave this category of sinner but he always directed them to go and sin no more.

      • Dave,
        How was that a cheap shot at the Church of England? I think the author was referencing the moral line crossed by Henry VIII and you are pointing out a political view of the situation.
        And the article mentions homosexual couples only as one problematic issue in a list of many.

  6. If we as a Catholic people think (as Jesus stated) that John the Baptist is a very important Christian witness, we ought to admit that our forebears prayed better than do, and prayed for his intercession in the “Confiteor,” until the Bugnini iconoclasm.

    We would do well to imitate Catholics before us, and restore our prayer for his intercession, rather than erasing him, to satisfy the tbe personal preferences of “His Excellency” Bugnini, who publicly admitted be wanted to throw out Catholic prayers, the Roman Canon of The Mass, and Roman Catholic liturgical endowments, and who is described in the memoirs of Fr. Louis Bouyer, as a man “as bereft of Catholic culture as he was of basic honesty.”

    If we are serious about passing our faith down to our grandchildren, then we would do better to pray as Jesus would have us do, and bring back the intercession of St. John the Baptist into the Confiteor.

  7. Notice how John the Baptist points only to the true Lord, Mediator and Savior and the Catholic leaders point and lean heavily on Mary?

    • Notice how God chose John the Baptist to announce Christ the Lamb to the world, but chose the virgin Mary to bear, give birth, and raise the Incarnate Logos?

      A couple of points from the Catechism of the Catholic Church worth pondering:

      The Annunciation to Mary inaugurates “the fullness of time”, the time of the fulfilment of God’s promises and preparations. Mary was invited to conceive him in whom the “whole fullness of deity” would dwell “bodily”. The divine response to her question, “How can this be, since I know not man?”, was given by the power of the Spirit: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” …

      What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ. (CCC, 484, 487)

  8. In spite of the great emphasis upon Mary in Roman Catholicism, the Bible says very little about her. In fact, she is never even mentioned by Peter, Paul or James. Furthermore, none of the New Testament epistles refer to her either. This is significant in light of the elaborate system of Mariology created by Rome with its Mary works, veneration, and devotions. What is even more surprising is the fact that some of the most significant teachings concerning Mary are of fairly recent origin (i.e., the Immaculate Conception, [1854], and the Assumption of Mary, [1950].

    Though the Bible honors Mary as the mother of Jesus and calls her “blessed…among women” (not above women, Luke 1:28), it does not teach us to deify her, worship her, or pray to her. The scriptures recognize Mary as a woman of humility, obedience, and virtue, but reject Rome’s adoration of her on the grounds that it is idolatrous worship condemned by the Word of God.

    Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on Mary’s perpetual virginity is clearly refuted in the Bible which plainly states that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:46-47; Matthew 13:54-56; Mark 3:31,32; Mark 6:3; John 7:1-6). Though Rome claims that these verses refer to Christ’s cousins, the original Greek wording clearly refers to brothers and not cousins. After the virgin birth of Christ, Mary and Joseph lived a normal husband and wife relationship, bearing other children.

    • In spite of the great emphasis upon Mary in Roman Catholicism, the Bible says very little about her.

      In spite of your great emphasis on sola scriptura, the Bible says nothing about it. Nor does the early Church. Nor the Church Fathers. Etc.

      Furthermore, none of the New Testament epistles refer to her either.

      Not entirely correct, of course, as Paul writes, “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law…”

      But, again, this (that is, sola scriptura) is based on a faulty hermeneutic. However, there is the fact that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John all have long or significant sections about Mary, as she is a key figure in the birth of her son (duh), his childhood (of course), the start of his public ministry (indeed), his Passion and Crucifixion (no small matter), and so forth and so on.

      It reminds me of how, growing up in a Fundamentalist “Bible chapel”, I heard at least three sermons on Rahab the Harlot–but none about Mary. Why not? Did Rahab play a bigger in Scripture, salvation history, or the life of Christ than did Mary? Of course not. It’s just that Fundamentalists are freaked out by Mary, in part because they either misunderstand or misrepresent Catholic (and Orthodox) beliefs about her and because they really aren’t quite as biblically-centered as they like to claim. They are cafeteria Bible readers; more importantly, they refuse to really think biblically.

      it does not teach us to deify her, worship her, or pray to her.

      Conflation, first, as prayer is not the same as worship. Secondly, the Church never has “deified” Mary or “worshipped” Mary as God. Not even close, despite what Boettner, Chick, LaHaye, Hislop, and all the rest claim (either lying or being completely clueless):

      The Church rightly honors “the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of ‘Mother of God,’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs…. This very special devotion … differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration. (CCC 971)

      Put another way, Brian: do you not think that the woman who said, “Yes!” to God and who bore the Incarnate Word and who was perfectly devoted to her Son, the Savior, should not get a little bit of love and respect? Maybe as much as you might give Martin Luther? Or Jack Chick? Or whoever is your theological hero?

      the original Greek wording clearly refers to brothers and not cousins.

      False. The Greek word adelphos can certainly mean cousins or relatives other than brothers. Vine’s or Strong’s will show you that, as will any decent Greek lexicon. Read and learn: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/the-case-for-marys-perpetual-virginity

    • “some of the most significant teachings concerning Mary are of fairly recent origin (i.e., the Immaculate Conception, [1854], and the Assumption of Mary, [1950].”
      LOL!
      The same claim was made by an Anglican “bishop” when Pope Pius XII in 1950 declared that the Assumption, a doctrine handed down in the Church for the previous 19 centuries from the Apostles, is a dogma (i.e. if you don’t believe it, you’re not a Catholic). The “bishop” wrote a newspaper article indignantly headed “NOW they have to believe THIS!!” It was then pointed out to him that his own cathedral (stolen from the Catholics in the 16th century) had a large stained glass window depicting the Assumption! (one of the few pre-Deformation religious artworks surviving in England, due to its inaccessibility).

  9. Could never get the animosity for Mary by some protestants. Along with the sacraments and mass, one of the great blessings as a Catholic is an understanding of having Mary as a intercessor for our prayers to her Son, Christ.

    A couple of resources on the subject is Brant Pitre book “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary”. Another book that goes in depth about the Church Father on Mary is “Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought”

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