HOMILY FOR MASS FOR THE FEAST OF THE BEHEADING OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST – Good Shepherd Seminary, Homebush
HOMILY FOR THE MASS OF THE FEAST OF THE BEHEADING OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST
GOOD SHEPHERD SEMINARY, HOMEBUSH, 30 AUGUST 2016
In the Middle Ages one of most popular devotional items, found in the best Christian homes, was a carved head of St John the Baptist on a plate! The devotion derived of course from today’s Gospel story (Mk 6:17-29) of Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, who had divorced his wife Phasælis and unlawfully taken his sister-in-law Herodias as his new wife. John – that extraordinary man from the priestly caste who had turned hippie-prophet and desert-baptiser and who first identified Jesus as the “The One who is to come”, “The One whose sandals I’m unfit to untie”, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” – this same John had called all Israel to repentance. Now he dared say what everyone was thinking about the royal marriage.
Speaking truth to power is a risky business: instead of leading to the king’s conversion and baptism, it can result in the prophet being silenced. But there was something fascinating about the man, his personality and preaching. He drew huge crowds to the Jordan 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 directly removes his mind, his tongue, the organs of his thought and speech. As student preachers of the word of God you know what that means. Dictators, ideologues, commercial interests, intellectual laziness and indifferentism: all have their ways to kill the mind and silence the truth.
Herod was perplexed “yet he liked to listen to him”. Herodias was perplexed and she didn’t like to listen to him! John’s message was, of course, Judeo-Christian teaching about the sanctity of marriage and sexuality – a teaching for which others such as St John Fisher and St Thomas More, St Maria Goretti and the Ugandan martyrs would also die in the future, a teaching very much under challenge at the moment as our nation prepares for a plebiscite on the very definition of marriage. If Christian teaching about God doesn’t get you martyred, its counter-cultural teaching about God’s plan for humanity sometimes will. After all, in supposedly tolerant cultures like ours, nothing is permitted to challenge the dictatorship of relativism that reigns in the palace.
But John would not be silenced – at least not 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 Mark’s account, but so does the ancient historian Flavius Josephus. What happened next is harder to verify: according to Oriental tradition, the deceased John preached to the souls in Limbo awaiting redemption by Christ. So just as the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist is the beginning of the Gospel for the living, so this Feast of the Martyrdom of the Baptist is the beginning of the Gospel for the dead. As John was forerunner of Christ to the living, making straight the way of the Lord, so he was forerunner of Christ even to the dead, getting them ready for His coming on Holy Saturday. The mind and tongue of this priest-prophet-preacher would not be stopped, even by death!
The Feast of the Decollation of the Forerunner as it is called in the East is one of our earliest annual liturgical celebrations. According to tradition Herodius had John’s head buried in a dung heap: once again, the seat of his thought and preaching was to be humiliated; once again, we are reminded just how precious, how powerful, how threatening can be the life of mind and tongue. John’s followers recovered the head and it was hidden away, only to be rediscovered several times over the centuries. Rather troublingly for those who like these things 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…
It’s easy to think that the age of the martyrs is over, but maybe it has barely began. In ten thousand years from now, people may look back to the early church, with its great doctors such as Augustine, Aquinas, John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI, and its early martyrs such as John the Baptist, Thomas More, Maximilian Kolbe and the Bishop martyrs of 21st century Australia imprisoned for their teaching on marriage! More now die each year for their Christian faith than even at the height of the Roman Empire. Only weeks ago a Catholic priest was ritually slaughtered before the altar during Mass by a Daesh fanatic. In the face of this kind of thing the temptation is, once again, to shut our minds and our mouths.
But Pope Francis gives us the lead in never tiring of calling out the persecution of Christians, especially in the Middle East and parts of Africa today. He will not be cowed on this, not be silenced. And if terrorism and persecution can seem to have the upper hand in modernity, silencing the witness of faith and reason, the story of the Christian martyrs goes on. As Tertullian said: “Our numbers increase every time we are cut down by you: the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”
May Christ and his saints give you, dear seminarians, the minds and tongues to offer our world what is needed in the generation ahead. St John the Baptist, pray for us!
INTRODUCTION TO THE MASS OF THE FEAST OF THE BEHEADING OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST
GOOD SHEPHERD SEMINARY, HOMEBUSH, 30 AUGUST 2016
Welcome, dear seminarians, to tonight’s Mass. I have very much enjoyed the opportunity to talk with some of you one-on-one today, and I look forward to talking with more of you through this week. It is one of the happiest memories of my week times in hospital that many of you came to visit me and encourage me, and it’s a joy to return the favour and be encouraged once again by your youthful enthusiasm to give your lives to the service of God and his holy people.