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.