Mass of the Nativity of St John the Baptist
Homily for Mass of the Nativity of St John the Baptist
Basilica of San Clemente, Rome, 24 June 2015
Walking into this twelfth century basilica, you were no doubt awe-struck by the beautiful mosaic in the apse, reminiscent of Byzantium. Christ on the Cross flowers as a Tree of Life restoring us to the Garden of Eden (cf Gen 2:10-14). From the acanthus tree spring vines connecting scenes of ordinary life to the life-giving Cross. There are birds of the air, fish of the sea, flowers and beasts of the earth; monks and farmers at their labours, a peasant woman feeding her chooks; teachers and scholars hard at their work; others enjoying a feast; playful putti and the little demon Drink. Twelve doves perch on the Cross representing the apostles. Above the Cross is the Hand of God the Father. Next to it, Our Lady and St John. Below are the Twelve Apostles again, this time represented as sheep, surrounding the haloed Sheep, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. To the sides we see Sts Peter and Paul, the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, St Lawrence and St Clement. In the scavi beneath we saw frescoes of Clement’s story, including him celebrating Mass adorned with the pallium uttering the Roman canon, but with some rather less elevated language written beneath.
Christ’s sacrifice on the Tree gives not merely biological life like a tree to its leaves, but supernatural life. His redemption opens up for us torrents of grace in this life and the hope for eternity. From His sacrifice flows that One Church that subsists through time and space, in heaven and on earth, in all those angels and saints and ordinary people in our mosaic above. I have heard of a Protestant lady who while on tour here at San Clemente suddenly realized that the 21st century Mass she was attending in the 11th century basilica, was built directly upon the foundations and walls of the much earlier basilica in which was celebrated the same Mass, that was in turn built upon the first century house church in which was celebrate the same Eucharist; it was the same continuous Church that went back to Peter in Rome and to Jesus in Jerusalem. The building itself converted her, as she came to realize that what Christ had done two millennia ago had been perpetuated ever since in the Catholic Church.
Today, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist; at the end of August we will celebrate the Feast of his beheading. (Jesus and Mary are the only other two who have feasts both of their birth and their death in our Church.) On St John’s birthday, the account of which we heard in our Gospel today (Lk 1:57-66,80), we wonder with the neighbours of Elizabeth and Zechariah “What will this child turn out to be?”
In the Middle Ages one of most popular devotional items – found in all the best Christian homes – was a carved head of John the Baptist on a platter! The devotion derived of course from the Gospel story of Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, who had divorced his wife Phasælis and incestuously taken his brother Philip’s wife Herodias as his own. John – that extraordinary priest’s son turned hippy-hermit turned prophet-baptizer, who had identified Jesus as The-One-Who-Is-To-Come, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world – this same John called all Israel to repentance. Now he dared say what everyone was thinking about the royal marriage.
Speaking truth to power, calling kings to repentance, is a risky business: instead of leading to their conversion and baptism, it can result in the prophet being silenced. It earned for John a long imprisonment. But there was something about the man, or his thought, his preaching, that fascinated people. He drew huge crowds to the River Jordan for baptism and now he held Herod’s attention even as he challenged him. There are many ways to kill a man. To behead him is to kill him in a way that removes his mind, his tongue, the organs of his thought and teaching. It can be dictators, ideologues, commercial interests or simple intellectual laziness and indifferentism that do this: there are many ways to kill the mind and silence the truth.
John challenged as he taught: Herod was perplexed “yet he liked to listen to him”. Herodias was furious, as much about the influence this man had over her husband as about his message. His message was, of course, Judeo-Christian teaching about the sanctity of marriage. If Christian teaching about God does not get you vilified even martyred, its counter-cultural moral teaching sometimes will. In cultures like ours, the temptation even for churchmen, even those with a mitre on their head and a pallium around their neck, is to be quiet and keep your head down when the powers that be in the culture have decided to go this way or that on marriage and the rest. But John would not be silenced, as long as he kept his head.
The seductive dance of Salome on the king’s birthday, his drunken, lust-crazed offer to give her anything she asked, the hateful heart of the queen, the appalling request of mother and daughter, the cowardly, face-saving act of ordering the execution of an innocent: all are the stuff of ancient legend. Yet history it was also: not only do three Gospels corroborate the story but so does the ancient historian Flavius Josephus. According to a tradition of the Orientals, John then went to preach to the souls in Limbo awaiting redemption by Christ. It seems that the mind and tongue of this man would not be stopped, even by death!
According to ancient tradition John’s body was buried at Sebaste, but Herodius had the head buried in a dung heap. It was then secretly recovered by his followers and hidden away, only to be rediscovered several times over the centuries, giving rise to various claims and counter-claims as to who holds the principal relic. Rather troublingly for those who like these things neat and tidy, there are several heads of John the Baptist available for veneration, in churches in Rome, Amiens and Antioch, in a museum in Munich and a mosque in Damascus…
Wherever the Baptist’s head ended up, his birth and life are models for us, like the martyrdoms of Pope St Clement and the bishop St Ignatius of Antioch who are buried under the high altar. Ignatius, for those of you who like these boys-own tales, was fed to the lions in the Colosseum next door, and what was left was brought back here, to the closest Christian house, and buried in what was then the garden. In 869 St Cyril brought back from the Crimea the bones of pope St Clement who had been banished from Rome and martyred, and these were placed in the same tomb. Death, whether it is physical death at the hands of others or the more mundane but perhaps more difficult death-to-self, is the cost of Christian discipleship. The pallium is a merciful cover-all and a chain of office, but it is also a cross-emblazoned yoke that signifies a willingness to give oneself wholly for Christ. As we journey on our pilgrimage together, may we too learn that capacity to die to self and so live for others and forever.