Guest Post: Of John the Baptist and Theological Education


By Sam Sawyer, SJ

Editor’s Note: These are the notes used by Sam Sawyer, SJ for his homily at the mass he celebrated during orientation for the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

Without Christ, John the Baptist’s life and death become unintelligible. This is not necessarily a profound observation — all I’m really trying to point out is that calling John the greatest of those born of women, calling him a prophet, and calling him a martyr for truth and justice, all depend on reading his life through the prism of the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. And indeed that is how we read John, as the precursor of Christ in life as in death, in proclamation of the coming kingdom and in martyr’s witness to its cost.

I would like to suggest two points of reflection for us today, about what we may learn for our own discipleship by reading our lives in light of John’s life, this life that is wholly interpreted by and unintelligible without Christ. The first point comes from the intersection of the gospel and current events; the second from the intersection of the first reading and our being here today at orientation for the STM.

At the intersection of the gospel and current events: I don’t know if I have ever really considered what the beheading of John the Baptist must have been like; I think the actual reality, for me, was often whitewashed by the word “martyrdom,” or by the fact that it was simply part of a larger narrative from which we quickly moved on. The past few weeks, however, have made that kind of ignorance of beheading at least temporarily impossible. We’ve all been exposed, if not to the images, then to the description of the images of James Foley being beheaded by ISIS terrorists. And while I don’t want to enter any debate about whether or not James Foley as a man of faith ought also to be considered a martyr, his death has made me take a second look at what we call the passion of John the Baptist. Put simply, this is not a noble death, either in its physical details or in its context. Foley was murdered by terrorists bent on hate whose ideology distorts and defaces their claim to faith in the God of Abraham. John the Baptist was murdered by a two-bit vassal king afraid of his own wife and enthralled with a dancing girl. Not a heroic death, not on its own. And even in the Gospels, it does not by itself achieve anything, except perhaps to show Jesus, in John’s last prophecy, what the proclamation of the kingdom would ultimately demand of him. This death can only be celebrated — as indeed we do celebrate it today and in this Mass — when it is incorporated and redeemed in the death and resurrection of Christ. And while John’s example, and Jesus’, call us to struggle for truth and justice in the world, they call us equally to a profound dependence on God. Truth and justice can be put to death by the powers of the world, and when they are, only God can raise them up again, which is the only way they can ever be fully realized.

So that brings us to where we are today, at the intersection of the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and STM orientation, when the liturgy asks a crowd of neophyte theologians: “Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” To which we can only answer: why, we’re right here. Or if not us, then certainly the ones you’re looking for are upstairs in their offices. But Paul is, to put it mildly, unimpressed by learning and erudition. In fact, Paul, writing to the Corinthians who are contesting each others doctrines and discipleship, presents a possibility that ought to keep theologians up at night: he says he has been sent to “preach the Gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”

Paul warns that human eloquence can oppose the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Wisdom, even and maybe especially theological wisdom, can empty the cross of meaning. Well, what then are we to do? Should we all get up, march out of here, and open up storefront churches and start preaching the cross sans all theology?

Of course not, and theology can help us understand why. Last year, in a seminar here, I read, in a selection from Balthasar’s Theo-Drama, his claim that he was not setting up a theological system — now, maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but that’s not important. What’s important is Balthasar’s reason for not wanting to set up a system, for, as he said, “the Cross explodes all systems.”

“The Cross explodes all systems.” High Christology or low, liberation theology or patristics, contextual or systematic, traditional or progressive: the Cross explodes all systems. As we set out to begin an academic year, as we set out to begin theological degrees, we will learn all sorts of systems, and that’s a good thing.

Let’s pray today that we may also learn that the Cross explodes all systems, that we may learn Christ the power of God and wisdom of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, whose weakness is stronger than human strength. And that will be an even better thing.

For while the Cross explodes all systems, it does not explode people: us it redeems. And what John the Baptist teaches us today, if we would be proclaimers of Christ, if we would be witnesses to truth and justice, is that our lives must be read through the life of Christ, even to the point of being unintelligible without him. The theology we will study together will contribute to that, but it becomes real, finally, only in God’s grace active among the community of disciples, and ultimately at the table where we break the bread and share the cup.

Sam Sawyer is a priest and a member of the Society of Jesus, ordained in 2014.  He is currently completing a License in Sacred Theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He is a founding editor of and blogs regularly at The Jesuit Post.


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