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

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.

"Beheading of Saint John the Baptist" (1608 by Caravaggio (WikiArt.org)

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 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. 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 was 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 mute, 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, commemorated in the Sacred Liturgy on 29 August, 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, rather 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” (Mk10:9). Divorce and remarriage, fornication, adultery, same-sex activity, 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?

Cardinal Newman has a very pointed sermon on our topic, entitled “Rebuking Sin,” in which he offers John the Baptist as the prime example of how this necessary Christian task ought to be accomplished. He ends his reflection with these inspiring but demanding words: “We daily influence each other for good or evil; let us not be the occasion of misleading others by our silence, when we ought to speak. Recollect St. Paul’s words:—’Be not partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.’ [1 Tim. v. 22.].”

May it be so for each of us. Amen.

(Editor’s note: This homily was preached on June 23, 2021, vigil of the Solemnity of the Nativity St. John the Baptist at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.)


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 200 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.

4 Comments

  1. The Old Testament prophets did foretell the coming of Christ and a New Covenant. It would be important for God to give faithful Israelites advanced notice so they would know what to look for when the Messiah came. That Christ is the real deal. That following Him was not a betrayal of the Old Covenant.
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    In the New Testament I see no similar passages foretelling any authorized upcoming massive alterations of the New Covenant. The New Covenant is the New and everlasting Covenant. As far as I can tell when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost God was all in. There are no further Persons of the Holy Trinity left to send the Church. All public revelations ended with the death of the Apostles. The New Testament does contain warnings about false teachers.
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    St. Stephen was just as bold as St. John the Baptist when he gave his discourse prior to his martyrdom.

  2. Blessings of The Feast on all the good hearted and caring words of the Prophets and priests that our Lord has blessed us all with .

    Good to also read in the prophetic voice of the Holy Father , the blessing and remedy for loneliness – given us all , in fidelity to the prudent and caring use of the Power of The Keys , the presence of the Holy angels , The Spirit of The Church Himself into lives …

    https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2021-06/pope-francis-world-day-grandparents-elderly-message.html

    Likely that The Baptist could have found strength in such trust in Providence as well , in leaving his own elderly parents and to have chosen to lead a life of prayer in solitude , from his early years on .

    May all who face such situations be blessed to trust that what is given up to serve the Divine Will would be rewarded in unfathomable ways .

  3. Another wonderful article! It’s quite something to have the feast of St. Aloysius, Thomas More/John Fisher, and John the Baptist all in a row like this. How some bishops can celebrate these feasts without a sense of shame is beyond me. The one died in a pandemic serving the sick, the others refused to take an oath–which meant they would be hung, drawn and quartered, and the one spoke out boldly against a marriage and lost his head for it. What a contrast!

  4. ? Does it need to be that hard to discern the struggle that the Bishops are facing in the issue and the need for the caution that has been advised !

    We too can sort of agonize with all our Fathers who have to make these decisions – the closest parallel likely would be our Lord walking into the life of the Gerasene demoniacs and allowing the pigs to run down the slopes for them to be drowned – the Jewish people who were not to have anything to do with pigs , yet likely that the runoff from the pig fields were in their mai and only water source ;
    ? would it have been prudent for their authorities to have banned those waters for all !

    In our contracepting culture that brings its hardness of hearts against sacredness of life as well as against Sacraments , what ought to be the best and prudent means that would help to bring all unto Him – the sinner , the lukewarm ..

    http://www.comingofthekingdom.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/74-Sacred-Heart-of-Jesus.pdf – The good thing from the issue being raised could be that it does lead to more grieving in the hearts of many – in seeing the rebellions of our self will and its vast effects , to also look with even deeper trust to The Sacred Heart –
    the remedy too there , in countering the spirit of despair which is at the root of it all .
    The grace and awesome role we are given to love and adore the Triune God , with His own Love – such a truth taken more deeply into every aspect of the family life such that the waters from the pig pens would be done away with , instead for the waves of purity to be there at mighty levels to flow into all lives .

    ? Would it be that The Lord is allowing these trials for such an outcome !

    Blessings !

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