Today we celebrate the martyrdom of St John the Baptist. He is the only saint in the calendar (apart from St Joseph and of course Our Lady) who have more than one feast. One, in August, celebrates his death, and one, in June, celebrates his birth. And this is as it should be, for as Christ himself said, John was the greatest of the sons of men. It is worth noting that his death did not come about because of his direct witness to Christ. That wouldn’t have bothered Herod too much in itself. His death came about as a result to his witness to marriage and what constitutes its validity under the Law of Moses. This thorny issue of what constitutes true marriage would surface again at the time of the English Reformation and in our own time in the legalisation of homosexual ‘marriage’. In the UK where this has happened, a man in such a homosexual union can label himself as a ‘wife’ and a woman can correspondingly label herself as a ‘husband’.
St John the Baptist was the greatest, but also the most tragic of figures. A prophet from before his birth, leaping in the womb to announce the coming of the incarnate God, his task was to proclaim the fulfilment of all prophecies – and thus his own obsolescence. And he did it: with unequalled courage he spread the news that he, the greatest of all men, was the least in the kingdom of heaven. His disciples (and the devil) would have preferred him to fight, to build his sect, to defeat this upstart Jesus of Nazareth whom he himself had baptized, to seize his place in history. But he did not – and so, rightly, he has his place, and he has glory in heaven. This is noted in today’s liturgy by the Communion Antiphon “He [Jesus] must increase; but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30) (Taken from Universalis.)
In today’s Office of Readings, we have a homily of St Bede the Venerable on the Baptist’s life.
“As forerunner of our Lord’s birth, preaching and death, the blessed John showed in his struggle a goodness worthy of the sight of heaven. In the words of Scripture: Though in the sight of men he suffered torments, his hope is full of immortality. We justly commemorate the day of his birth [entry into eternal life] with a joyful celebration, a day which he himself made festive for us through his suffering and which he adorned with the crimson splendour of his own blood. We do rightly revere his memory with joyful hearts, for he stamped with the seal of martyrdom the testimony which he delivered on behalf of our Lord.
“There is no doubt that blessed John suffered imprisonment and chains as a witness to our Redeemer, whose forerunner he was, and gave his life for him. His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth? Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.