Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist
In most churches in the Christian East and the most ancient churches in the Christian West, the central figure of Christ is flanked by icons or statues of Mary, on one side, and John the Baptist on the other. In the West, the ancient devotion to John the Baptist is not as prominent as it once was. John, perhaps, would not mind, since it was his own desire to be nothing more than a forerunner, the friend of the Bridegroom, who must decrease so that the Bridegroom can increase. And yet, is this not what we are all called to? For this very reason, perhaps we would do well to return time and again to John and his witness, which Jesus himself holds up for us, saying:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mt 11:7-15).
John did not realize that he was the Elijah who was to come (Jn 1:21), but perhaps this darkness was part of his mission: as John Henry Newman observes, God normally leads us one step at a time, without giving us a global vision of our mission in this life. During the imprisonment that preceded the execution that we hear about in today’s gospel, God offered John the grace of experiencing something of the darkness and abandonment (Mt 11:2-6) that Jesus would himself experience in his passion (cf. Salvifici Doloris 18). John was even denied the privilege of a martyrdom that would allow him to witness to God publicly at the moment of his death. Instead, he dies alone in prison, the victim of Herod’s concupiscence and Herodias and Salome’s jealous and vengeful scheming. And yet, after our Lady, there has been perhaps no greater witness to the coming of the messiah than John the Baptist. He died alone and in the dark, perhaps thinking that he had failed in his mission. But this “absurd” death was far from meaningless, for nothing offered to God is lost. Through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, John’s sacrifice is revealed to be what it really is. In union with the Bridegroom, John becomes a seed that dies and produces great fruit.