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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