Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was greatly perplexed because some were saying, “John has been raised from the dead”; others were saying, “Elijah has appeared”; still others, “One of the ancient prophets has arisen.” But Herod said, “John I beheaded. Who then is this about whom I hear such things?” And he kept trying to see him.Luke 9:7-9
August 29th recalls the the death of John the Baptist. Mark’s gospel tells the gruesome story. King Herod ordered his death, prompted by Herodias. (Mark 6, 17-19) Because his death is like the Passion of Jesus the church calls it “The Passion of John the Baptist”.
Human sinfulness is on display in this banquet at court, which the artist (above) describes very well. The women smugly presenting John’s head. The man pointing his finger at Herod and Herod denying it all. John’ eyes are still open, his mouth still speaks.
Venerable Bede says that John’s death is like Jesus’ death because they both embraced the same values. If John stayed silent about Herod’s conduct, he may have gained a few peaceful years of life, but he was more concerned with what God thought than what powerful people on earth thought.
“His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth?
“He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life.
“But heaven notices– not the span of our lives, but how we live them, speaking the truth.” (Bede, Homily)
Wonderful line: It doesn’t matter how many years we live, but how we live them, “speaking the truth.”
For John that meant dying for the truth. What does it mean for us? It may not mean getting our heads chopped off, but we should expect some scars from the daily battle for God’s truth. ” May we fight hard for the confession of what you teach.” (Opening prayer)
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” He said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.Matthew 14:13-21
June 23, three months after the angel announces to Mary that Elizabeth is six months pregnant (March 25) John the Baptist is born.
From his birth John the Baptist was destined, not to follow Zachariah his father as a priest in the temple, but to go into the desert to give himself solely into God’s hands to be readied to welcome the Messiah, Jesus Christ. John is the last of the Jewish prophets, the first to recognize Jesus, the only saint whose birth and death are celebrated in our church calendar.
It may have changed, but there’s an interesting Sunday walk in Rome I’d recommend. Go out the city gate at the Porta di San Sebastiano and walk south along one of the oldest roads in the world, the Via Appia, to the catacombs and church of San Sebastiano. Outside the city gates, you’re in what the ancient Romans called the “limes,” the limits, the world beyond the city, a different world altogether.
To the ancient Romans the “limes” meant the end of civilized, reasonable life. No place to live, they thought. Get where you’re going as soon as you can. “Speed limit” comes from the word. Go beyond the limit and you can lose your life.
Few people today are usually on that road, deserted fields all around. The only sound you can hear is the sound of your own breathing and your footsteps.
The last line of St. Luke’s gospel for today’s feast says of John:
“The child grew and become strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.”
How did John become strong in a desert? Centuries before, God led the Jews from Egypt into the desert. With no map or provisions they went into a world unknown. Yet they were in the hands of God, who became their strength.
Most of us stay within our limits; we don’t go to live in physical deserts. Yet, try as we may to avoid them, we face them anyway in things we didn’t expect, like sickness, or death, or separation, or divorce, or the loss of a job, or lost friends or lost places we know and love. The desert’s never far from any of us.
The Via Appia brings you to the catacombs, the great underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead. They buried them there, I think, not to hide them, but because this place was an image of a new unknown world. The “limes,” marked the end of this life and foreshadowed a new life. The dead no longer belonged in the city; they were going to a new city.
Life holds its doubts, fears, uncertainty. But we don’t face limits alone. In the “limes” God alone has you in his hands. God gives you strength and brings you where you’re meant to be. God is there. God is there.
Like other ancient church feasts, the Nativity of John the Baptist is tied to cosmology. John’s birth coincides with the summer solstice. He begins to decrease to make way for the one who will increase. The Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist is celebrated by the Orthodox Church June 24.
Birth of John the Baptist. Orthodox Church of America.
Fourth Week of Lent, Thursday
Exodus 32:7-14; John 5:31-47
He was a burning and shining lamp, and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light. But I have testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me… For if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me, because he wrote about me.John 5:35-36, 46
The children of Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moses our Teacher”) had difficulty accepting the Messianic claim of Jesus of Nazareth. Wonders and signs failed to convince; teachings in the synagogue alienated. Mysterious references to his invisible, inaudible Father “who testified on my behalf” eluded not only his adversaries but even his friends (John 5:37; 14:9).
The tablets of the Ten Commandments were akin to the tree of life for Israel, guarded in the ark of the covenant by two cherubim as at the gates of Eden (Exodus 25:18-22). The word of God, living and active, fed the Israelites in the desert of exile as a refreshing, spiritual drink. Yet Jesus called into question the confidence of those who prided themselves as faithful keepers of the law shaped by the divine word.
…and you do not have his word remaining in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent.John 5:38
Jesus’ lamentation was devastating, for to be void of the word of God meant death and destruction.
You search the scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life.John 5:39-40
The first statement may also be read as an imperative: “Search the scriptures, because you think that you have eternal life through them.”1 Moving from the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) to the man, Jesus, required a gigantic leap of faith.
The awe-inspiring, wholly transcendent God of Mount Sinai spoke to Moses “face to face” from between the two cherubim over the ark in the tent of meeting (Numbers 7:89). The ark represented the ultimate manifestation of God’s physical presence on earth (shekinah). For a man to claim to be God in the flesh was the height of blasphemy.
Jesus, a Jew among Jews, understood the trauma and dissonance surrounding his person and work. Thus he appealed to the testimony of John the Baptist, his Forerunner, and especially to Moses, Israel’s foundational teacher and lawgiver. The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus at the Transfiguration ratified his status as the true Messiah and Son of God.
The following poem is a reflection on Jesus’ appeal to his witnesses in John 5:31-47.
The lamp of the law given to Moses2
Illumined prophets, priests and kings.
Pharaoh’s rival esteemed Christ’s reproaches
More than Egyptian glitterings.3
Elijah’s word burned like a blazing torch,
Calling fire down from the heavens.4
John prepared the way for the fan to scorch,5
The Lamb’s lamp waking to penance.6
Dim was the lamp in the Light of the Word
Born in the beginning with God.7
Hearts filled with the word recognize the Word,
Acknowledging the love of God.8
He who has seen me has seen the Father9
Though his form is invisible.10
Alone I am not, but from my Father—
His charaktér made visible.11
Moses, Elijah and I are aflame—
Lamps in the triple Light of God.12
The Torah and Prophets proclaim
That I AM WHO I AM, your God.
1 See New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote to John 5:39.
2 Psalm 119:105.
3 Hebrews 11:26.
4 Sirach 48:1, 3.
5 Luke 3:17.
6 John 1:29; 5:35.
7 John 1:6-9; 1:1-2.
8 Inverse of John 5:38, 42.
9 John 14:9.
10 John 5:37; 1:18; 6:46.
12 Transfiguration of Jesus: Mark 9:1-8; Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36. Triple Light refers to the epiphany of the Holy Trinity.
The priest Zachariah goes into the temple bearing incense to worship the Lord , “In the days of King Herod”. An angel appears next to the altar of incense and says to him. “Your prayer has been heard,..Your wife will bear you a son.”
Surely, the old priest was no longer praying for a son. Childbearing was over for his wife and himself. The promise of new life was long gone; there’s no hope for a child.
But the angel promises a child “great in the eyes of the Lord” to be called John, who will more than fulfill their hopes, turning “many of the children of Israel to their God.”
The old priest doubts and is punished with silence. He won’t speak until after the child is born. Then he speaks again, as he announces to those at his birth that “his name is John.”
You lose your voice when you lose hope in God’s promises. You get it back when you believe. When John is born, Zechariah sings a song of praise at God’s unexpected gift.
The Communion Prayer for today’s Mass says: “As we give thanks, almighty God, for these gifts you have bestowed, graciously arouse in us, we pray, the desire for those yet to come.”
Never doubt the gifts God wants to give, Zechariah tells us. Doubt silences us. God’s gifts give us a voice.
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
John the Baptist is a voice that passes away, according to St. Augustine: “John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives for ever.”
John’s “voice” passes away. He no longer baptizes at the Jordan River. He cedes to the Word, and so should we. Our voice passes away; something of ourselves has to go– some of the things we hold dear, the friends who surround us, the institutions that have upheld us. Our way must give way to God’s way.
We think so little of this.
Listen again to Augustine: “What does prepare the way mean, if not be humble in your thoughts? We should take our lesson from John the Baptist. He is thought to be the Christ; he declares he is not what they think. He does not take advantage of their mistake to further his own glory.
“If he had said, “I am the Christ,” you can imagine how readily he would have been believed, since they believed he was the Christ even before he spoke. But he did not say it; he acknowledged what he was. He pointed out clearly who he was; he humbled himself.
“He saw where his salvation lay. He understood that he was a lamp, and his fear was that it might be blown out by the wind of pride.”
November 30th is the Feast of St. Andrew. On the lakeshore in Galilee Jesus called him along with his brother Simon Peter to follow him. We only know a few details about Andrew. What are they?
He’s a fisherman, of course. Andrew is a Greek name. Why would a Jew have a Greek name? The area around the Sea of Galilee was then multi-cultural, and Andrew’s family came originally from Bethsaida, a trading town in the upper part of the Sea of Galilee with a substantial Greek population. Would that explain it? Wouldn’t they also have spoken some Greek? Afterwards they located in Capernaum, another trading town along the sea.
If that’s all so, it could explain why later in John’s gospel, Andrew and Philip bring some Greek pilgrims to Jesus before his death in Jerusalem. Jesus rejoices, seeing them as signs that his passion and glorification will draw all nations to him. One can see why the Greek church has Andrew as its chief patron: he introduced them to Jesus.
Bethsaida has been recently excavated.
Can we also see Andrew as someone interested in religious questions? He’s described as a disciple of John the Baptist, and John pointed Jesus out to him. Jesus then invited Andrew and another disciple to stay for a day with him. “Come and see.” Afterwards, Andrew “found his brother Simon and said to him ‘We have found the Messiah.’” (John 1,35-41)
I notice too that Andrew bring the little boy with the bread and fish to the attention of Jesus.
For the Greek Church Andrew is the first of the apostles because he’s the first to follow Jesus; then he calls his brother. Western and eastern Christian churches together celebrate his feast on November 30th.
The letter to the Romans, the first reading for his feast in the Roman Catholic liturgy, stresses there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, and praises messengers who bring God’s word to others. Tradition says Andrews brought the gospel to Greek speaking people. It also claims that Andrew was crucified on the beach at Patras in Greece. Besides Greece, Andrew’s also the patron of Russia and Scotland.
We ask you, O Lord,
that, just as the blessed Apostle Andrew
was for your Church a preacher and pastor,
so he may be for us a constant intercessor before you.
Troparion (Tone 4) (Greek Orthodox)
Andrew, first-called of the Apostles
and brother of the foremost disciple,
entreat the Master of all
to grant peace to the world
and to our souls great mercy.
Kontakion (Tone 2)
Let us praise Andrew, the herald of God,
the namesake of courage,
the first-called of the Savior’s disciples
and the brother of Peter.
As he once called to his brother, he now cries out to us:
“Come, for we have found the One whom the world desires!”
The gospel readings at Mass for the week after the Feast of the Epiphany are connected to that great feast.
The Magi seeking the King of the Jews represent the nations, the Gentiles, who seek Jesus as their Savior. In our readings for Monday Jesus begins his public ministry after his baptism by John, going to Galilee. “The Galilee of the Gentiles,” Matthew’s gospel calls it. He brings light “to a people who sit in darkness.” (Matthew 4,12-17,24-25) In Galilee Jesus fulfills the promise made to the Magi.
He repeats the words John used to define his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” But Jesus goes beyond John (Saturday, John 3,22-3); he calls a Gentile world as well as a Jewish world to turn to God, for the kingdom of God at hand.
Humanly speaking, it wasn’t a good time to begin such a mission. It’s “after John was arrested,” a dangerous time. Galilee, when Jesus began his mission, was ruled by Herod Antipas, who imprisoned John and then beheaded him. (Matthew 4, 12-25)
But God’s time is not our time. It probably wasn’t a good time either for the Magi to come to Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the Great. But God’s ways are not our ways. We can miss grace and its opportunities when we think of time in too human a way.
Accounts of the miracle of the loaves and the crossing of the Sea of Galilee from Mark’s gospel are read on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Commentators note that in Mark’s gospel the Sea of Galilee is a stormy path Jesus takes to reach the Gentile world of his day. The other side of the lake, the western side, was predominantly a Gentile area. They are given the same Bread he provides for the children of Israel.
It’s to “all of Galilee” that Jesus goes and “as a consequence of this his reputation traveled the length of Syria. They carried to him all those afflicted with various diseases and racked with pain: the possessed, the lunatics, the paralyzed. He cured them all.” (Matthew 4, 23-25)
Galilee is the “Galilee of the Gentiles,” where Jesus would bring good news to both Jew and Gentile.