Summary: John, and we, need to be prophets to our cultures.

Martyrdom of John the Baptist

August 29, 2011

Testimony of the Saints

Popular culture almost always gets everything wrong. Thus today’s celebration, which in the pre-Vatican II liturgy was a feast, not a memorial, is totally misinterpreted by pop culture. In the view of the secular world, the primary story in the Gospel is the dance. Salome performs a seductive dance in which she sheds seven veils, and Herod is so smitten that he grants her whatever she wishes. Directed by her mother, angry at John for preaching that her marriage is porneia–invalid by Jewish law–she asks for the Baptizer’s head on a serving dish.

Well, there was a dance, and there was a promise, and there was a martyrdom, but everything else is extra-Biblical. We only surmise the daughter’s name from Josephus, who says that Herodias had a daughter named Salome. The seven veils come from an old Egyptian myth of the goddess Ishtar. So the movie version is a lot more elaborate than the reality.

The principal teaching in the Gospel story is brought out by today’s first reading. Remember that in Jesus’s day the general public thought he was a reincarnation of Elijah or Jeremiah or even John the Baptist? John, too, was considered to be a prophet in the line of Elijah. Why is that? Because Elijah and Jeremiah spoke the correcting word of God. “Repent your sins,” they said. In the prophetic age, most prophets, particularly the court prophets, spoke a consoling word. “God loves the king. The king is terrific. God will protect the kingdom. God will do battle for the king”, and so on. And these pop prophets would ignore the mistreatment of the poor and alien, the depredations of the rich, usury, temple prostitution, and child sacrifice.

The prophets of the OT, however, spoke the word of a God engaged with the culture, fighting the injustice, and standing up for the weak and marginalized. John was such a prophet. We see him early in Luke’s Gospel calling the crowds a “brood of vipers,” and telling them to stop counting on their heritage as Jews to save them. “Share your cloak with the naked,” he said to them. “Don’t intimidate people,” he told the soldiers. And, to Herod, he said, “it is not right to sleep with your brother’s wife.”

I gave a homily in August that was a bit like that. I spoke about how contraception and abortion have ruined our moral climate, our families, and our economy. I always tell folks that when I give a good homily, they should tell pastor, and when I make a mistake, they should tell me. Most of the time it’s just the opposite. The pastor got three e-mails complaining about the homily.

My response is simple: tell me where I am preaching something that does not conform to the Magisterium of the Church, and I will repent and stop. That would have been the answer John would give. All of us who are called to preach a prophetic word should give the same answer. Neither I nor anyone else short of the College of Bishops in union with the Holy Father is infallible. But, apart from that, as Paul said, I am impelled to preach the full Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We should all give thanks for the prophetic spirit alive in the Church. That prophetic spirit has been alive, particularly in the canonized saints and our Popes. Today the word of God is just as energetic and needed as it was in John’s day. Archbishop Chaput, newly appointed to the archdiocese of Philadelphia, wrote a book on engagement with the secular culture two years ago that should be read by every Catholic. “In his book Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, Chaput exhorts Catholics to take a "more active, vocal, and morally consistent role" in the political process, arguing that private convictions cannot be separated from public actions without diminishing both. Rather than asking citizens to put aside their religious and moral beliefs for the sake of public policy, Chaput believes American democracy depends upon a fully engaged citizenry, including religious believers, to function properly.” Every Catholic, especially we clergy, have the same prophetic gift that John expressed. It is high time we exercised that gift. Our world is dying for lack of the Word of God. Let all humans hear it.