John the Baptist
Father Hanly’s homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, Year B.
First Reading: Isaiah 49:1-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 139:1-3, 13-14, 14-15
Second Reading: Acts 13:22-26
Gospel: Luke 1:57-66, 80
I like John the Baptist. But I have a personal bias towards him. You see, I was born on the day he died. And also my mother was born on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and Mary was the aunty, the wonderful aunty of John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s little boy.
You must remember that John the Baptist died on the day that he was destined from all eternity, but a very hard day to even think about. To begin with the ending of it: you know John the Baptist was put in jail by Herod. And Herod liked the man. He liked him, he used to go down into the dungeons and listen to him preaching and teaching those who were lost men and women down there. And he was greatly moved by him.
But he was also aware that John the Baptist could be a dangerous person and was more popular among the people than he would ever be. And he was popular because he spoke the truth in love, and never without love did he speak the truth, and never did he lie to them.
And so he had mixed feelings.
And then he decided to have a party. All the people who really mattered came to party, the elite people, and Herod’s wife, Herodias, was there, and she had a little daughter who danced at the party. And Herod by this time was half drunk. And he was so taken up with this little girl who danced so well, that he said, when she’d finished, “Come to me and I tell you I will give you one half of all my kingdom.” Well, that was a large amount of money. “Whatever you ask for,” he said, “whatever you ask for, I will give you, even if it is half of my kingdom.” And so she ran in to her mother and asked her, “What should I ask for?” And her mother said: “The head of John the Baptist.” Because John the Baptist had been quite angry at Herod because he had married his brother’s divorced wife. And he said he shouldn’t have done that. And so Herodias had a great hatred for him.
And so the little girl went up to the king and said: “I want the head of John the Baptist,” adding “here and now, on a plate.” So that was the end of John the Baptist. They went down to the dungeon, and they beheaded him and brought his head on a plate, up to give to the little girl, and little girl gave it to her mommy, and the whole world was upset. And yet that was the end of who Jesus called “of all those born of men, none was greater than John the Baptist.”
Another reason I like him was that John the Baptist, great, great man that he was, was very simple. He led a simple life. He grew up, went into the desert, there he met probably with a lot of Israelites who were fasting, who were sacrificing, who were praying that the time for the Messiah would come. And John the Baptist had a secret in his heart, for he already knew his cousin Jesus was to be that person.
And so he took on a very simple life: camel’s hair, eating just basic things that he could find in the desert, which wasn’t too much.
But people go into the desert for a very good reason: when you get filled with the nonsense of the society in which you live, when you’re tired of all the greed and demanding and the unfairness and all of this, you’re looking for something like a desert so that you can sit and come once again into contact with your heart and with your soul, of something deeper, something spiritual, something real, that will turn you back into a loving person. And that’s what the desert was for: to hone the spirit, and have men and women who went into the desert understand that God’s quiet, quiet voice could be heard very loudly, depending on your environment.
What did John teach? He came in and he taught what he had been told to teach. He was the herald of the Messiah. And the herald of the Messiah was to prepare the way. And preparing the way for the herald was to bring people back to where they had started: this simple little tribe marching through the desert, full of gratitude because they had been freed from Egyptian slavery, free people marching into this little country and beginning to make a new home. And because they believed in these things, they were doing fine, but they too became corrupted by the environment around them and it was not too long after when they were worshipping everything, not just the true and one God, but they were worshiping whatever caught their fancy.
And so it was that John had only one purpose: he walked from place to place and he said, “Come back. Come back to where you belong.” It’s called, in Greek, metanoia. “Turn your life around and come back where you know you belong, because He who freed you now calls you and He’s calling you once again into freedom and not to be bound up by all the nonsense around you.” And so it was that he became very popular, too popular, and that’s why he was arrested, and that’s why he complained publicly. He didn’t complain, he announced publicly that Herod should be ashamed himself, not to be faithful to the vows that he took to his former wife and taking on his brother’s wife, his sister.
You would think that that would have been the end of John the Baptist, but he had thousands of people still rooting for him. And he was loved by Jesus. And when Jesus came… At the time that John went into prison, Jesus began his own public life. And it came to be that from his prison his followers came and told him all than Jesus said and what Jesus did. And they thought he wasn’t strict enough or harsh enough or demanding enough, like their friend John.
But he was. Because John was never cruel, John was never unfair, John was always ready to help those in great need: the poor and the sick and the needy. But he was a tough guy and he knew he had to be tough, because he was trying to hold this little group together, and at the same time he knew that Jesus would come and the world would change, for the Messiah, the Holy One of God, would finally come forth.
And so when Jesus came forth, he came as the suffering servant of Yahweh. He came as if he was weak, because he loved the weak; as if he was poor, because he loved the poor; as if he was not strong enough to drive the Romans out of that little country, because he didn’t believe in picking up weapons and killing your brothers and sisters.
And yet, Jesus knew all the time, every step he took, that it was in the direction that his Father wanted. And his Father wanted, the one thing that his Father asked of him was teach them how to love. If you do not teach them how to love, it doesn’t matter how beautiful their buildings are, how great their songs are, how wonderful they are, if they do not love, they will ultimately destroy each other, they will fall into the chaos of history, just like all the people who tried to build this kind of a world they fell into.
And so John, he saw that his disciples were a little upset because they saw that he was weak. And so John decided that he would send them to Jesus. And now I’ll read the exact little bit about Jesus, in the midst of great crowds, caring and loving, forgiving. And the little disciples of John, frightened that John was about to die and they were lost, and they went to him, and John sent a message to Jesus with them saying:
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
And to this Jesus replied, thinking perhaps that John himself was frightened that Jesus would not be as assertive as he must be.
But I think something different. I think that John the Baptist knew his men, and he knew that they had to hear it from Jesus if they were to join him after John had died.
And so Jesus looked at the men that were sent and he said:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see”
Remember we talked about that? What you hear and what you see. It’s more than hearing with your ears and seeing with your eyes. And this is what Jesus says:
“the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
And he’s quoting from the Old Testament for this, in the book of Isaiah, was the sign the Messiah had come, the world had changed, there would only be a new world, and that world will be based on love and care and reaching out to each other and loving each other.
And that John, with great happiness, passed away and his last understanding was the Messiah had come to fulfill the promise made all the way back to Abraham and to all those hundreds of thousands of people. According to the fourth gospel, John went to his death a happy man.
And, as for Jesus, you could not fail to see in John’s fate a foreshadowing that he himself must not only, as they say, talk the talk, but walk the walk, and he, too, must lay his life down for the freedom of all mankind.
But before he died, Jesus said this about John. And this is the end of the story. He called all the people to him and he said to them:
“Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
And what he meant was, in the new world that has now begun, it will be people who fall in love with God, and God falls in love with them, and there’ll be a new energy set forth upon the world, and it will grow and it will grow and it will only grow through being meek, humble of heart, caring, loving, and never giving up. It will be in the shadow of John the Baptist, of the power of Jesus, the Messiah, Son of God, who would recreate the world in three desperate but important days: when he died, was buried and rose again to reach out to all mankind an alternative — one built on love and caring.