Saint John the Baptist holds a very special place in the Liturgical Calendar of the Catholic Church; so much so that when his Birthday falls on a Sunday, as it does today, his feast takes precedence. Saint John is the only other saint apart from the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose birthday is kept by the Church as a Solemnity. This is because John’s birth, like that of Our Lady, signalled the end of the Old Testament era, and the beginning of the New Covenant between God and humanity in the person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Saint Luke tells us the angel Gabriel announced his birth to his father Zechariah who gave him the name John, which means “God is gracious.” (Luke 1:8-23) Even while still in his mother’s womb he recognised the presence of Jesus by leaping when Mary visited Elizabeth (Luke 1:41).
When John grew up he left his parents to live the life of a prophet in the desert. He preached in the desert dressed like an Old Testament prophet, wearing a garment of camel-skin and eating locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6; Matt 3:4). He proclaimed the kingdom of God, and a coming judgement, and he invited people to accept baptism as a symbol of their repentance. His ministry resembled that of the prophets of old, in that he disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed. The well-known Trappist writer Thomas Merton is supposed to have said, “Every prophet is a pain in the neck; but not every pain in the neck is a prophet.” John was undeniably a prophet and also a pain in the neck, at least to Herod and the religious leaders of his day. We see him disturbing the comfortable when he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming retribution? Produce fruit in keeping with your repentance and do not presume to tell yourselves we have Abraham as our father.” (Luke 3:7-8) John’s message obviously disturbed people with a bad conscience, and some of the powerful did repent, as did tax-collectors and soldiers. Tax-collectors asked him what they must do, and John replied, “Exact no more than the appointed rate.” (Luke 3:13) Soldiers also repented, and his advice to them was “No intimidation! No Extortion! Be content with your pay!” (Luke 3:14) John’s message spread far and wide, and his message was definitely attractive. Saint Mark opens his gospel by saying that all Jerusalem and Judea made their way to him and as they were baptised in the Jordan they confessed their sins (Mark 1:5).
We see John’s humility when he didn’t want to draw attention to himself but directed people to Jesus. People began to wonder if John was the Messiah, so he reassured them that he was not. He declared that his ministry was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, “I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8) When Jesus came to John asking for baptism, John recognised Jesus at once and said, “Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) These words have found their way into the Mass; when the priest holds up the Sacred Host as we prepare for Holy Communion he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world…” Our Lord began his public ministry after he had been baptised by John. An expectation had developed among the Jews that the prophet Elijah would return to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah, and Our Lord later declared that John was that Elijah type person they were expecting (Mark 9:13). After Our Lord’s baptism, once again we see John turning the attention to Jesus as he declared, “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30) And we are reminded of this fact celebrating John’s birth just days after the summer solstice as now the daylight hours begin to decrease; and we will celebrate the birth of Jesus just days after the winter solstice when the daylight hours begin to increase.
We see John’s great courage in condemning the adulterous marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife. This is a reminder to us that not everything that is allowed by law is morally right, e.g. divorce and abortion. Herod had John arrested and thrown in prison. John stood up for the truth, and unfortunately like many who stand up for the truth today, he had to pay a price. John’s courage in upholding the dignity of marriage and condemning the adulterous relationship of Herod and Herodias was to result in his martyrdom.
History often repeats itself, and John the Baptist’s beheading was repeated in Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher, whose feast we observed on Friday. If you remember your history, King Henry VIII abandoned his lawful wife and Queen Katherine of Aragon, and illegally married Anne Boleyn. Parliament passed a law forcing the clergy and the aristocracy to acknowledge Henry as the supreme head of the Church in England. In silent protest, Thomas More resigned his post as Lord Chancellor. Both he and his friend, John Fisher the Bishop of Rochester, were aware that just because something is lawful doesn’t mean it is morally right. Both refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy. Both were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Both were subject to a kangaroo trial and found guilty of high treason. Both were beheaded in July 1535. Thomas More’s last words were, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
The courage of John the Baptist, John Fisher and Thomas More in upholding the truth about marriage, and their subsequent martyrdoms as a result, challenges us in a time when it’s not popular to speak the truth or live by the truth. Marriage has become a mockery in many societies. Until recently everyone recognised that God wills that marriage be a lifelong and exclusive union between a man and a woman. The blessing that marriage delivers belongs to all humanity. Breaking the link between gender and marriage makes marriage a different kind of institution altogether. It no longer tells the story that both male and female are needed to create and then to nurture new human life. Any interruption to this process causes confusion, especially for children. Reflecting on this, Pope Francis declared that: “Children have the right to grow up in a family with a father and mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.”
Today we hear John the Baptist, Thomas More and John Fisher remind us that just because certain attitudes and behaviour are enshrined in the law of the land, doesn’t mean that it’s morally right. John the Baptist, turning attention away from himself and towards Our Lord reminds us to do the same also in our lives. In each of us, we ourselves are to decrease and Jesus Christ is to increase.
Saint John the Baptist, pray for us.