St. John the Baptist was a man of the people. Yes, he embraced a harsh ascetic discipline for himself. He lived out in the wilderness, isolated, in part, from society. This, however, was all in preparation for his work, the work of being the voice in the wilderness, calling out and telling everyone to repent and prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God. His discipline was important, for it helped him in his mission: he could not call others to penance if he did not live a life of penance himself, but that life, that penance must not be confused with his actual mission in the world. He kept himself pure so that in that purity he could then become a man of the people, a man speaking on behalf of the people against the powers that be. This is why the people came to him; they loved him for they knew, despite all the harshness in his ways, he was for them. He illuminated the evils of his age, including, and especially, the evils performed by the powers that be. Nonetheless, he also pointed out everyone had their own need for penance, that even if people were not in positions of power, they needed spiritual healing to deal with their own inner demons. Thus, many came to him to be baptized so that through it, they could hope that God could and would embrace them and prepare them for the kingdom of God which was at hand.
John knew the role he had been given in salvation history; he was to be the “last of the prophets” before Christ. Because many believed him to be the Christ, and not just a messenger preparing the people for Christ, he knew he must correct them of their mistake: “And as John was finishing his course, he said, `What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie’”( Acts 13:25).
John knew he was only a messenger, but what a messenger – the people heard him and repented, while many religious and secular authorities wanted to use John for ungodly purposes. John was not impressed with the religious leaders of his time. They came to him hoping to receive his blessing so that they could then use it to further validate their own authority and their own claims upon the people. They did not get what they wanted. John denounced them for their subterfuge. Similarly, when secular leaders heard him, they saw his greatness and wanted to find a way to use him in support of their regime. Nonetheless, such authorities knew he could be and would be uncontrollable if he were not put in his place, for they knew that what he was calling for was a radical change in society, a change which they were not willing to make. John worked for the common good, for the promotion of the common person and their needs, while secular authorities looked after themselves and their own wants and needs. Thus, Herod was interested in John, wanted to hear from him and yet was also afraid of him. Herod had John locked up as a way to limit John’s influence on society, but also to make sure he could have John all to himself, hoping he could go and listen to John whenever he wished:
For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; because he had married her. For John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly (Mk. 6:17-20 RSV).
So many today are like Herod. They know good, holy religious men and women, men and women who they both fear and revere. They are afraid of the expectations of righteousness for they know it is the expectations of love, expectations which run contrary to their own personal desires. But they also in awe of the righteous and want to find a way to put them in a place in which they can enjoy the benefits of such holiness themselves.
The righteous promote the way of love, but those who are cruel and manipulative, those who look after their own personal interests and desires, resist the call of love and end up seeking to put those who promote it in their place. The way of love is dangerous as it brings to light all the problems associated in systems based upon malice and greed, for love demands those systems be dismantled and replace with systems which promote justice and the common good.
Surprisingly, it is often those who are the most unloving, the most cruel and manipulative, the most authoritarian when given positions of power, who are among those who most speak of religion. They are fascinated by holiness and the power contained in it. They want it for themselves. Even if they cannot truly possess it, they hope to give the appearance that they are religious so as to make people think they have a share of such holiness themselves. But the more they do so, the more they will seek to lock up religion in the confines of a little bubble, telling holy men and women that they have no business speaking up for those in need. Time and time again, we see holy men and women rise up to the challenge, promoting the common good and therefore the need to care for and support the poor and the oppressed, only to be taken out and killed; Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donova, and Oscar Romero, all, for example, suffered the fate of John the Baptist, having been killed because they brought the light of the kingdom of God to the world and exposed the darkness of those who pretended to be in the light. This happens all so often; religion is seen as acceptable and to be promoted so long as it is held in check, but when the light of the kingdom of God shines forth and exposes the corruption and evil within the system, those who would like to hold onto that darkness will strike out against the light, hoping to snuff it out. No matter how much someone like Herod will try to hold onto the darkness while giving a place for the light, they will eventually have to decide which they will follow. If they do not abandon the darkness, they will find it will consume them so that eventually they will have no power to resist and so they will be led, like Herod, to strike out and try to destroy the light.
Are we light Herod? Do we try to hold our religious faith captive, put in its place, so that we do not have to live it out? Do we ignore the dictates of love, thinking they are fine and beautiful maxims which are so impractical that we can ignore them and their expectations in our lives? Do we heed those who speak out on behalf of the poor and oppressed, those who speak on behalf of the people and their needs, or do we say they are dreamers and idealists who have no business telling society what to do? Do we strike out at those telling us to repent and do better, or do we heed what they tell us and do what it takes, even if it inconveniences us? We might know the story of John, we might know of the wickedness of Herod, but we must ask ourselves, are we really that much different from Herod?
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