Yesterday was the feast day of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. I would like to say that there are very few people who do not know the details of the story surrounding the beheading—which actually has a proper English word derived from the Latin—the “decollation” of St. John the Baptist. But we live in a culture in which stories from the Bible no longer form an integral part of the culture. It would be interesting to do a survey in Grand Central Station at rush hour and ask people if they have ever heard of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, or even, whether they have heard of St. John the Baptist.
But those possessing an aesthetic sensibility would know about this event, for the story, with its lurid details, has been the basis of paintings by artists from Fra Lippo Lippi to Titian and Caravaggio. Oscar Wilde’s play in French called Salomé, which he (of course) wrote before his death- bed conversion, was notorious in its day. The script was made into an opera by Richard Strauss that still plays in opera houses throughout the world, its most famous scene being the Dance of the Seven Veils.
Why do we celebrate this feast? We celebrate this feast for the same reason we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist in June as a first class feast. Because of who he is in salvation history. John the Baptist is not only the forerunner of Christ. He who comes out of the desert preaching repentance for sin is the last of the prophets, that majestic line including Moses and Elijah and Jeremiah and Isaiah and Zephaniah and Malachi. And the role of the prophet was to speak the word of the Lord God to his people and, most often, to tell the people that they had turned their backs on the law of God and were sinning grievously and if they did not repent, terrible things would happen to them. Most of the prophets were reluctant to take on this mantle. Moses demurred on the basis of a speech impediment, Isaiah claimed unworthiness, Jonah tried to get out of it by running away by ship-- with disastrous results. The calling of Jeremiah is one of the most moving of prophetic callings:
The word of the Lord came to me thus: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you”.
“Ah, Lord God”, I said, “I know not how to speak; I am too young”.
Say not “I am too young”. To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them. Because I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord. Then the Lord extended his hand and touched my mouth! See I place my words in your mouth. This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, to root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant….But do you gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you…They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord. (Jer. 1:1-19)
Jeremiah’s pleas for a return to God to the kings and people of Judah went unheeded, and Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon in the sixth century B.C., and Jeremiah was forced into exile into Egypt and some say was murdered there by his own countrymen, Not a happy ending.
But neither was the ending of the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. What did John die for? He died for the truth. And truth, when one dies for it, is never general, it is never an abstraction. It is always specific. John declared that King Herod’s marriage was unlawful and the relationship was adulterous. This stung Herod’s wife deeply, and when the opportunity came, she demanded John’s death. We all know the story about Herod’s big banquet for all the important people in Jerusalem and how Herod’ wife’s daughter from her previous marriage danced and delighted the inebriated king who promised her anything she wanted. And what her mother wanted, asked for and got was John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Not a happy ending.
But prophets never have happy endings. For their job is to shout clearly the reality of the state of affairs: that the people have strayed from the paths of righteousness, they have strayed from the Commandments of God, that the way they worship has become corrupt and syncretistic, worshipping other gods in the name of tolerance and fitting in. It is true that there were times when the prophet’s voice was heeded and reform accepted, but those times are the great exception.
And what of the prophetic voice of the Catholic Church today? The prophetic voice against abortion was indeed heard but too late to prevent the passage of Roe v. Wade. And that prophetic voice is growing dimmer as society rushes toward a hell bent individualistic liberalism that is intolerant to any voice raised in opposition. The prophet always speaks directly to those involved in the corrupt society: to the king, to the priests, to the people. The prophet would thunder and ask Barak Obama directly: what does it mean to call yourself a Christian and support abortion as a right? How is this consonant with God-given life and with love? Repent and return to God!" We will soon embark on a year of official political debates, not something to look forward to. But imagine if a prophet stood up and looked at Hillary Clinton in the eye and thundered: "How in God’s name can you support abortion and Planned Parenthood and call yourself a Methodist Christian? On what teachings of Christ do you base your moral choices?" And the prophet would not let her retreat into the mantra of “my religion is a personal thing and I will not force everyone to believe as I do.” The prophet would look Joe Biden in the eye and ask: "How can you as a Catholic vote for and support positions on moral issues that are contrary to the faith in which you claim to believe? How does this square with the clear teaching of the Church on these issues? Turn back to the Lord and repent you of your ways!" And the prophet would ask similar and terribly uncomfortable questions and demand an answer of all the candidates of both parties. But the odds are not good that such a prophet will be among those men and women who will be part of the reality show that we call political debate.
But we must remember that even if there were such prophets their message would be rejected over and over again. That is the state of what the world has been, is, and always will be. That is not pessimism; it is reality. The world will ever be in opposition to the law of God, which is the law of love. May I suggest this to you: that what we do here today in the celebration of the Traditional Roman Mass is a prophetic statement. The celebration of this Mass thunders against the noise and babble of the world, the noise that fills so many of our churches as well, this Mass thunders against the noise with its silence. This Mass that is the distillation of centuries of worship prophesies against the cult of the new that drives so many of us to distraction. The beauty of this Mass, with its choreography that points ineffably away from itself, prophesies against a society awash in the destructive forces of pornography and sexual license and in the forgetting of the Christian and classical understanding of beauty, a society that has forgotten what beauty is. This Mass is a prophetic gesture not only to the world but to the Church, which like the Israelites of old wants to be relevant to the world by playing catch-up with a society that increasingly hates all that the Church stands for and is. And so it is no wonder that there is hostility within the Church among her bishops and priests to this Mass, for a prophet is never welcome in his own house.
We can thank God, in some sense that we have not been called to be Jeremiah to this culture. Most of us wear ear-plugs to avoid hearing that call. For to hear that call would indeed be difficult and would risk an unhappy ending. But we can and do thank God that He gives us grace and strength each day to be faithful to his Word and to his Church and that we are fed in this place in Word and Sacrament. And for that we say: Deo gratias.