Tag Archives: John the Baptist

The Passion of John the Baptist: Mark 6:14-29

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Mark’s gospel today tells the gruesome story of the death of John the Baptist, which prefigures the death of Jesus. King Herod ordered his death, prompted by Herodias. Human sinfulness is on display in this court banquet, 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)

December 19: Zechariah in the Temple

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!

Readings here.

Saturday, 2nd Week of Advent

The artist who painted this picture of John the Baptist preaching near the Jordan river obviously had no idea of what Palestine and the place of John’s ministry looked like, but he got the story right anyway, I think.

The people listening to John are surrounded by an over-powering wilderness. They’re on their way to Jerusalem, but will they ever get there? There are no well marked trails in sight, no civilized world close by for food and lodging. Only a man preaching to them.

Our readings today from the Old and New Testament point out Elijah and John the Baptist as guides God sent to care for his people, the vine he planted. There were guides then and there will always be guides.

John sent those who listened to him in the wilderness on their way. He baptized them with water and pointed out the path. His words were food for their spirits and brought joy to their hearts. They’ll find their way.

We’ll have guides too.

Readings

Saint Andrew, brother of Peter

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November 30th is the Feast of St. Andrew. On the lakeshore in Galilee Jesus called him and 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 were originally from Bethsaida, a trading town in the upper part of the Sea of Galilee with a substantial Greek population. Would that explain why they may have spoken some Greek?  Afterwards they located in Capernaum, another trading town close by.

Could that 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 sees why the Greek church has Andrew as its chief patron: he introduced them to Jesus.

Bethsaida has been recently excavated.

Bethsaida 393
Bethsaida: Winegrowers house
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Bethsaida: Ruins
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Bethsaida: Ruins

 Andrew seems to have an interest  in religious questions. He’s described as a disciple of John the Baptist, who points Jesus out to him. Jesus then invites 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.

The Greek Church sees  Andrew as 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 the Greeks, and 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 Birth of John the Baptist

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.

Readings for the Feast:

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.

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A Voice That Passes Away

Spring Lake even

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.”

The Mass Readings after Epiphany

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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.

Is Faith a Ticket to Success?

You can’t listen to the story of the Prophet Jeremiah, our first reading these days,  without thinking about the passion of Jesus.  In fact, readings from the Book of Jeremiah are common readings for Holy Week. We see Jesus in Jeremiah.

God tells Jeremiah to “hold nothing back,” but speak the truth to those in power and the false prophets of the day, no matter how unpopular it is.  Jesus did the same.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus was innocent, but was framed by the powerful as guilty. They questioned his authority, but he would not deny his mission.

Only a few voices seem to stand up for Jeremiah and only a few stood up for Jesus. Neither had many faithful followers at their time of trial. Yet both were carried along by God’s power and their names vindicated.

Jeremiah, like Jesus and  John the Baptist who suffered a lonely death at the hands of Herod Antipas belonged to a brave company.

Some would have us see our faith as a ticket to success, an inoculation against failure or suffering.  Believe and nothing bad will happen to you. Yet, as you look at Jesus, the prophets and the saints, you see a more realistic profile of faith. We’re promised victory, yes, but only by accepting the mystery of the cross.

Keep an eye on Jeremiah and John. Keep an eye on the passion of Jesus. Follow them.

From Womb to Womb

Icon of the Visitation

Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Isaiah 49:1-6, Psalm 139, Acts 13:22-26, Luke 1:57-66, 80

Truly you have formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works. (Psalm 139:13-14)

King David sang with lyre and harp the mystery of his origins. Like a loving mother, God stitched him with needle and thread in his mother’s womb. 

The prophet Isaiah received his name and mission “from my mother’s womb” to be “a light to the nations.” 

John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb… to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:15, 79).

The greatest of the prophets—the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14)—Zechariah’s son was the first to be sanctified in the womb by the Holy Spirit, marking a turning point in salvation history. The Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation, inspired David’s psalms, and spoke through the prophets, anointed the Forerunner of the Son of God in Elizabeth’s womb.

At six months of age, before his body was fully formed, John’s spirit was whole and awake before reason or the senses knew the light of day. At the voice of Mary, John “leaped” in his mother’s womb “and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). 

Mary, full of grace and the Holy Spirit, was immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb in preparation for her role as the Mother of God.

The Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was neither sanctified in the womb nor immaculately conceived, but beyond conception itself, though language must grasp at the graspable to express his beginningless beginning. The only-begotten Son of the Father was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s immaculate womb, uniting in his Person divinity and humanity, heaven and earth.

The new Eve, the new Adam, and the new Elijah closed the Old Testament and opened the New. The Holy Spirit, who was known only vaguely in the Old Covenant took center stage in the Acts of the Apostles after Pentecost. From womb to womb down the centuries, the Spirit of truth has led us back to the Eternal Womb of the Father from whom all persons originate. 

The spirit longs to soar beyond history to the eternal principle from which everything originates. Beyond the Story (history), beyond time and eternity, beyond the beyond…

“No one has ever seen God;
the only-begotten Son,
who is in the bosom of the Father,
has made him known.”

John 1:18

-GMC