On the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

"The Truth is the Truth; there is no compromise"

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CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, AUG. 29, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in the main square at Castel Gandolfo. Today the Holy Father reflected on the figure of St. John the Baptist, whose martyrdom we celebrate today.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

This final Wednesday of the month of August marks the liturgical memorial of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. In the Roman calendar, he is the only saint for whom we celebrate both his birth (June 24th) and his death by martyrdom. Today's memorial dates back to the dedication of a crypt of Sebaste, in Samaria, where by the mid 4th century his head was already being venerated. The cult then spread to Jerusalem, to the Churches of the East and to Rome under the title of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. In the roman martyrology, reference is made to a second-century discovery of this precious relic, which was transported for the occasion to the Church of St. Sylvester in Campo Marzio, Rome.

These little historical references help us to understand how ancient and deep the veneration of St. John the Baptist truly is. In the Gospels his role in relation to Jesus is quite prominent. In particular, St. Luke recounts his birth, his life in the desert and his preaching, and in today's Gospel St. Mark speaks to us about his dramatic death. John the Baptist begins his preaching under the emperor Tiberius, in 27-28 A.D., and the clear invitation he addresses to the people who come out to hear him is to prepare the way to welcome the Lord, to make straight the paths of their lives through a radical conversion of heart (cf. Luke 3:4). 

But the Baptist does not limit himself to preaching repentance and conversion; rather, in recognizing Jesus as “the Lamb of God” who has come to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29), he has the deep humility to point to Jesus as the One truly sent by God, and he steps aside so that Christ might increase, be heard and followed. 

As a last act, the Baptist bears witness with his blood to his fidelity to God's commandments, without giving up or turning back, thus fulfilling his mission to the end. St. Bede, a 9th century monk, in his Homilies says: St. John, for Christ, gave up his life, even though [his persecutor] had not demanded that he should deny Jesus Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth (cf. Hom. 23: CCL 122, 354). And he did not keep silent about the truth, and thus he died for Christ who is the Truth. For love of the truth, he did not give in to compromises with those who were powerful, nor was he afraid to address strong words to the one who lost his way to God.

Now we see this great figure -- this force -- in his passion, in his resistance against the powerful. We ask: where does this life come from, this interiority, which is so strong, so principled, so consistent, which is spent so totally for God and in preparing the way for Jesus? The answer is simple: from his relationship with God, from prayer, which is the guiding thread of his entire life. John is the divine gift long besought by his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth (cf. Luke 1:13); a great gift, humanly unhoped-for since both of them were advanced in years and Elizabeth was barren (cf. Luke 1:7); but nothing is impossible for God (cf. Luke 1:36). The announcement of this birth occurred precisely in a place of prayer, in the temple of Jerusalem; indeed, it took place when, to Zechariah, there fell the great privilege of entering the temple's most sacred place, in order to offer incense to the Lord (cf. Luke 1:8-20). Even the Baptist's birth is marked by prayer: the hymn of joy, praise and thanksgiving that Zechariah raises to the Lord and that we recite each morning in Lauds -- the "Benedictus" -- extols God's action in history and prophetically points to the mission of his son John: to go before the Son of God made flesh in order to prepare the way for him (Luke 1:67-79). 

The entire life of Jesus' precursor was nourished by his relationship with God, especially during the time he spent in the wilderness (cf. Luke 1:80); the wilderness, a place of temptation, but also a place where man feels his own poverty, for there he is deprived of all support and material security, and he comes to understand that the only secure reference point is God himself. 

But John the Baptist is not only a man of prayer, of constant contact with God; he is also a guide in this relationship. The Evangelist Luke, in relating the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples -- the "Our Father" -- notes that the request made by the disciples was formulated with these words: "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples" (cf. Luke 11:1). 

Dear brothers and sisters, celebrating the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist also reminds us -- Christians in our own times -- that we cannot give into compromise when it comes to our love for Christ, for his Word, for his Truth. The Truth is the Truth; there is no compromise. The Christian life requires, as it were, the "martyrdom" of daily fidelity to the Gospel; the courage, that is, to allow Christ to increase in us and to direct our thoughts and actions. But this can only occur in our lives if our relationship with God is strong. Prayer is not time lost, nor does it steal space away from our activities, even those that are apostolic; it is exactly the opposite: only if we are able to have a life of faithful, constant, trusting prayer, will God himself give us the ability and strength to live in happiness and peace, to overcome difficulties and to courageously bear witness to him. May St. John the Baptist intercede for us, that we might always maintain the primacy of God in our lives. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[In English, he said:]

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Indonesia, Japan and Malta. Today, the Church celebrates the Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist. John, whose birth we celebrate on the twenty-fourth of June, gave himself totally to Christ, by preparing the way for him through the preaching of repentance, by leading others to him once he arrived, and by giving the ultimate sacrifice. Dear friends, may we follow John's example by allowing Christ to penetrate every part of our lives so that we may boldly proclaim him to the world. May God bless all of you!

© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Lastly, a thought for the young, the sick and newlyweds. May the radicality of the faith and life of St. John the Baptist inspire you as believers: dear young people, may you manifest openly and everywhere that you belong to Christ and to his Church; dear sick, may you draw upon the strength of prayer to alleviate your suffering; and may you, dear newlyweds, always place the Lord Jesus at the center of your family lives. Thank you to you all. Have a good day. Thank you. 

[Translation by Diane Montagna]