Birth, Passion, Death
The Church gives us two feastdays of Saint John the Baptist each year: the first on June 24th to mark his nativity, and today’s feast to mark his passion and death. We celebrate the nativity of Saint John the Baptist because, unlike everyone else with the exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, John was born in holiness. Our Lord Jesus Christ sanctified John when both of them were still hidden in the wombs of their mothers. The grace of hiddenness marks the life of Saint John the Baptist from the beginning.
Appearance and Disappearance
Jesus hidden in Mary approached John hidden in Elizabeth and, when the voice of the Holy Mother of God reached the ears of Elizabeth, the babe in her womb leaped for joy (cf. Lk 1:44). Although John, like all men, was conceived marked by Adam’s sin, he was born already touched by the saving grace of Christ mediated by His Immaculate Mother. Clearly, a child born in such extraordinary circumstances was destined by the Lord for even greater things. At the peak of summer on June 24th we celebrated the appearance of John the Baptist. Today, as summer begins to fade, we celebrate his disappearance.
More Than A Prophet
“And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways” (Lk 1:76). John the Forerunner is a prophet and he is more than a prophet. By his preaching he speaks truth in the boldness of the Holy Spirit. By his captivity, passion and death, he prefigures the Suffering Servant, the immolated Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, the Victim “by whose wounds we are healed” (1P 2:24). Our Lord Himself says: “A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John” (Lk 7:27-28).
This Joy of Mine
In Jesus, John the Baptist recognizes the Light, the Christ, the Lamb of God, and the Bridegroom. “Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29). All John’s joy is to gaze upon the Face of Jesus and to hear His voice. “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase but I must decrease”(Jn 329-30).
The Burning and Shining Lamp
John was to be visible only for a time. “He was a burning and shining lamp,” says Jesus, “and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (Jn 5:25). John’s shining light was hidden away in the darkness of a prison cell. The Bridegroom had arrived; the Friend of the Bridegroom had to disappear.
The voice of John the Forerunner was heard crying in the wilderness, denouncing sin, calling men to justice, and sinners to repentance. But then the voice of the Eternal Father was heard, coming from heaven: “Thou art my Son, the Beloved; with Thee I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22). After the voice of the Father revealing the Word was heard over the Jordan, the voice of the Baptist was heard less and less until, finally, it was silenced by death, a cruel and ignominious death not unlike the immolation of the Lamb, which it prefigured.
Today’s feast obliges us to come to terms with the paradox of a hidden and silent life. Graced from the womb of his mother in view of an extraordinary mission, Saint John the Baptist served the designs of the Father for the length of time and in the place determined by the Father’s loving providence. “Sent from God . . . he came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light” (Jn 1:6-8). When the Sun of Justice dawned, when the Dayspring appeared, the Forerunner could disappear. When the voice of the Bridegroom began to make itself heard, the Friend of the Bridegroom could fall silent.
In the Shadow of the Cross
John the Baptist knew that, like the grain of wheat which falls into the earth and dies in order to bear much fruit (Jn 12:24), he was destined to return to a life of silence and obscurity. John the Baptist shows us that every vocation is subject to mysterious and unexpected turns. He demonstrates that every vocation must fall beneath the shadow of the Cross, sometimes in dramatic ways, but more often in the humble obscurity of day to day existence.
Suffering is necessary if we are to decrease and allow the Lord Jesus to increase. To each of us Saint John the Baptist says: Prepare to disappear. And lest this should alarm us and cause us to tremble with fear and anxiety, John teaches us how to pray in the words of the psalmist:
Thou art my patience, O Lord:
my hope, O Lord, from my youth.
By Thee have I been confirmed from the womb:
from my mother’s womb Thou art my protector.
Of Thee shall I continually sing:
I am become unto many as a wonder,
but Thou art a strong helper. (Ps 70:5-6)
The hidden and silent life is a necessary and inescapable part of discipleship. A vocation that is not marked with the sign of the Cross is suspect. A life that is without its moments of obscurity, silence and apparent uselessness, does not bear the imprint of the Lamb. The more a soul is surrendered to the love of Christ the Bridegroom, the more deeply will that soul be marked by the Cross.
Ultimately, the sign that authenticates the mission of Saint John the Baptist is his participation in the Passion and Cross of Jesus, in Jesus’ humiliation, in Jesus’ going down into the valley of the shadow of death. And the sign that our vocation is blessed by God is that it is marked by the Cross.
The Sweetness of the Triumph of the Cross
One whose life is marked by the Cross cannot live without the Sacrifice of the Mass. Holy Mass allows us to taste the sweetness of the triumph of the Cross in the midst of every bitterness. Partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ does not spare us any suffering; it infuses all suffering with an irrepressible hope. “Therefore this joy of mine is now full” (Jn 3:29).