Monday August 29, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist
Reading (Jeremiah 1:17-19) Gospel (St. Mark 6:17-29)
Today we celebrate the feast of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. This particular thing is something that is of great interest because we know from Sacred Scripture that Our Lord has told us that Saint John the Baptist is the greatest man born of woman. Now you would think, if that were the case, that God – especially after having bestowed upon him so many extraordinary graces to be able to know who the Messiah was and point Him out to the people, to baptize the people and prepare them for the coming of the Messiah – was going to protect him, shield him, make sure that nothing happened to him. You recall Our Lord Himself telling us that we might be hauled into synagogues and before magistrates and so on, but He said, Not a hair on your head is going to be harmed. When we hear these words and then we look at what happened to John the Baptist, we have to ask ourselves, “What happened? Why didn’t the Lord protect him?” It is because his martyrdom was the greatest act of witness to Jesus that Saint John the Baptist had ever performed. Instead of looking at it and saying, “But I thought God was going to protect him,” we have to look at it the other way, first of all, recognizing that God did protect him. He kept his faith strong right to the end, He gave him the grace to offer his life in witness to Christ, and He brought him to heaven. What greater protection can there be?
We would like to think this means that nothing is going to touch him. Why would we think that? Look at the Cross. Look at the Son of God hanging on the Cross, and then say, “Do we think that we should not have to do anything like this?” The promises God makes are absolute and irrevocable. The difficulty is that sometimes we do not quite understand them the way God intended them. We look at this promise and we think that therefore we should not have to suffer. We think that we should not have to endure martyrdom because God made this promise that not even a hair on our head would be touched. But that is a little different from the way He would intend it, so we have to learn to see things from His perspective.
But we also need to learn to see the value, the dignity, of martyrdom and of suffering. While it is not something that most of us are going to stand in line for, it is something that we have to understand the importance of. The old saying is: The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. We know from the Cross that it is only through suffering and through death that the greatest good in the world has come about. And it is going to be through suffering and through martyrdom that the greatest good in the world is going to continue to come about, not only that the martyrs get to go straight to heaven, but that many souls will be saved because of the uniting of their sufferings to that of Christ.
It is quite an interesting phenomenon to see how things change with time. Back in the 4th century, Saint Augustine actually had to preach homilies to the people telling them that not everybody had to be a martyr. The people wanted to be martyred! He was trying to explain to them that there are different people in heaven who were not martyrs; there are married people and there are the virgins and there are all these different categories of people; not everybody has to be a martyr. Now we have to stand here and say, “Well, some people will be martyred.” And our 21st century response is: “It’s not fair.” The question really has to do not with what is fair but with what is proper. What is proper is what the Church has recognized right from the very beginning. What is not proper is our mindset on the whole thing.
If we are looking at it and saying, “It’s not right. People shouldn’t have to do this,” that is not true. People are willing to do this out of love. For those of you who are parents, all you have to do is ask yourself, “What would you do for one of your kids? If your child were in the immediate line of danger, would you put yourself in the place of that child? Would you risk your life to save the child’s life?” I hope and pray and trust that the answer to that is “yes” because you love your children so much, not because you want to get hurt, not because you want to die, but because you love your children. Well, we are called to love God above all with our whole heart and soul and strength. That is what the martyrs show us, that they love God so much that they are willing to suffer and die for Him.
Now for those of us who run away from the suffering, and those of us who would absolutely cringe at the possibility of martyrdom, we need to ask ourselves, “How much do I really love the Lord? If I am unwilling to accept even a little bit of suffering for Him then I must not love Him very much.” The martyrs loved Him so much that they were perfectly united to Him in His suffering and in His death so that they could be perfectly united to Him in His resurrection and His glorification. That is what we are all called to do as well, to love the Lord so much that we would be willing to do anything for Him. If we find that we are not willing to do anything for Him then we need to start really working on our love for God because that is what is lacking, not the promises of God, not anything from His side, but rather only from our side. So that is what we need to look at very, very seriously, and ask ourselves, “How much do I really love God? Do I love Him enough to suffer for Him? Do I love Him enough to die for Him?”
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.