By CAROLE BRESLIN
Thousands of years before the time of Christ, the Pharaoh of Egypt held the children of Israel in bondage. Our Lord proved His love for them when Moses led them out of Egypt. When Mary was carrying Jesus, she and Joseph, because of an imperial decree, had to travel to Bethlehem in order to be counted in the census. The Feast of the Holy Innocents commemorates the martyrdom of the boys under two years of age who were martyred by Herod for fear of the King of the Jews who might take his place.
Even Jesus was condemned by the secular government, which was all part of God’s plan. A few years before Jesus died, John the Baptist was beheaded, all because of the uncontrolled passions of another Herod. On August 29, the Catholic Church honors the beheading of John the Baptist.
St. Luke describes the conception and presentation of John the Baptist in detail in his Gospel. Except for Jesus alone, the birth of no other person in the New Testament received so much attention.
Zachariah, a priest from the division of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, had no children. Being beyond the age of childbearing, they had no human hope of ever having any. However, when Zachariah entered the sanctuary of the holy of holies to burn incense, an angel appeared to him, telling him that Elizabeth would conceive a child and they should call him John.
Six months later, when the angel announced to Mary that she would bear the Son of God, the angel confirmed his tidings by informing Mary of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Without hesitation, Mary hastened to assist Elizabeth, her cousin, in the time of her confinement. The moment Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, John leapt in the womb of Elizabeth. Catholic tradition has held that since Mary was full of grace, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and John leapt in the womb, and that he was freed from the stain of original sin three months before his birth.
Even when the angel told Zachariah to “be not afraid” and informed him of the great role John would play and the joy he would bring by his holiness, Zachariah remained skeptical of the tidings. Because he doubted, the angel struck him mute until the day that John was presented in the Temple and was given his name. When Zachariah confirmed that John was his name, he immediately received his ability to speak again.
In chapter 3 of his Gospel, Luke described John the Baptist and his interactions with people from various walks of life. John urged them to repent and be baptized whether they were peasants, publicans, soldiers, or rich people. He further instructed them to perform acts of charity, such as sharing their tunics.
When the crowds began to wonder about his role in God’s plan, they asked him if he was the Christ, to which John responded: “I indeed baptize you with water. But one mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). Of course, John was referring to Jesus.
As the time approached for Jesus to begin His ministry, He went to John in the River Jordan to be baptized along with the other people. John, recognizing who Jesus was, deferred and said it was Jesus who should be baptizing John. Nevertheless, our Lord told him to do it.
As John baptized Jesus, the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove and the Father spoke of His delight in Jesus. After this event Jesus went to the desert for 40 days, while John continued to preach against those who disobeyed God’s law as well as urging both repentance for sins and Baptism.
One of the persons John reproved for breaking the law and living in sin was Herod the tetrarch. Herodias, the woman with whom he was committing adultery, pressured him to arrest John because he preached against their affair. Thus, once again the government was at odds with those seeking to do the will of God. To those steeped in sin, those who seek to be holy are a rebuke to their lifestyles, whether or not they actually say anything.
Hence, sinners seek not only to silence the men of God, but also to gain their approval. Herodias, enraged by John’s criticism, sought his murder even though Herod did not want to put John to death. He knew the people liked to listen to John, and considered him a holy and righteous man preparing the way of the Lord. In fact, Herod liked to listen to John, too.
While John was in prison, his followers came to tell John about Jesus. They questioned the work that Jesus was doing in relation to what John had done. Then John sent them to Jesus to ask Him if He was the Messiah. His response was to instruct them to tell John to look at His works. When they left to carry out His orders, Jesus addressed the crowd, telling them about John: “Amen I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11).
Not surprisingly, Herodias plotted to have John beheaded. She found her opportunity when Herod had his birthday celebration with many dignitaries present. Knowing the depravity of Herod, she sent her daughter to dance for him and catch him in his weakness. Greatly pleased with her dance and letting his passions rule him, he promised the girl whatever she wanted.
Little did he consider what she would ask of him: “I want thee right away to give me on a dish the head of John the Baptist” (Mark 6:25). Stunned by her vulgar request and by her daring to voice such barbarity, he nonetheless had to acquiesce in it in order to keep his word.
As always happens, rulers are not only in conflict with the People of God, but they put one of them to death.
The normal state of the Church is persecution — our Lord told us it would be. For the last 2,000 years, Christians have paid the price for following Christ. Nothing has changed as we witness the many atrocities and even beheadings of innocent children. However, we rejoice in knowing, by the example and witness of the martyrs, that God not only provides the grace for final perseverance, but also bestows great joy on those who remain faithful to His call in this life as well as the next.
Dear St. John the Baptist, obtain for us the grace of final perseverance, we beg of you. Help us in our everyday trials to accept the will of God and be docile in sufferings. Day by day, help us to grow in our love of the cross so that should God ask martyrdom of us, we may joyfully and without hesitation welcome such a crown of glory. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)