On August 29, in the Liturgical Calendar of the catholic Church, we memorialize the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist.
Two millennia after his illustrious mission as the harbinger of Christ, we readily accept, as we should, his prophetic role in the revelation of God’s plan of salvation and the advent of the Gospel.
Yet, how might we have seen John if we had been his contemporaries?
Would we have so readily accepted him, or might we have rejected him as a fanatic or extremist?
Let’s face it: John was peculiar. He dressed like a cave man, ate insects and railed at politicians for their fornications.
He sequestered himself in the desert where he tirelessly initiated converts fleeing the sinful pollution of the cities.
He proclaimed the end if the people failed to repent and he used vivid and mystical imagery.
In the popular “media” of the day, he was portrayed as a nut and dangerous fanatic.
John embodied what I call “the legacy of unpopular methodology”. By standing apart, boldly calling out evil doers without regard to their prestige or rank, by challenging his own co-religionists, John made himself terribly “unpopular”.
Today we tend to reject those who similarly publicly decry sin and heresy. Street preachers, prophets and clerics who confront sinful policies, bad behavior and false ideologies are decried as trouble makers, fanatics and dangerous “extremists”.
Saint John the Baptist was a simple man, not a member of the elite. He was stirred by conscience and the Holy Spirit to call a spade a spade, and throw convention to the wind.
He paid dearly for it, and as Christians we inherit the abundant fruit of his daring investment.
That is the ultimate blessing of his unpopular methodology.
Since it was the will of God’s only-begotten Son that men should share in his divinity, he assumed our nature in order that by becoming man he might make men gods. Moreover, when he took our flesh he dedicated the whole of its substance to our salvation.
He offered his body to God the Father on the altar of the cross as a sacrifice for our reconciliation. He shed his blood for our ransom and purification, so that we might be redeemed from our wretched state of bondage and cleansed from all sin. But to ensure that the memory of so great a gift would abide with us for ever, he left his body as food and his blood as drink for the faithful to consume in the form of bread and wine.
O precious and wonderful banquet, that brings us salvation and contains all sweetness! Could anything be of more intrinsic value? Under the old law it was the flesh of calves and goats that was offered, but here Christ himself, the true God, is set before us as our food. What could be more wonderful than this?
No other sacrament has greater healing power; through it sins are purged away, virtues are increased, and the soul is enriched with an abundance of every spiritual gift. It is offered in the Church for the living and the dead, so that what was instituted for the salvation of all may be for the benefit of all. Yet, in the end, no one can fully express the sweetness of this sacrament, in which spiritual delight is tasted at its very source, and in which we renew the memory of that surpassing love for us which Christ revealed in his passion.
It was to impress the vastness of this love more firmly upon the hearts of the faithful that our Lord instituted this sacrament at the Last Supper. As he was on the point of leaving the world to go to the Father, after celebrating the Passover with his disciples, he left it as a perpetual memorial of his passion. It was the fulfillment of ancient figures and the greatest of all his miracles, while for those who were to experience the sorrow of his departure, it was destined to be a unique and abiding consolation.
See in this bread the body of Christ which hung upon the cross, and in this cup the blood which flowed from his side. Take his body, then, and eat it; take his blood and drink it, and you will become his members
There is almost nothing in our human experience to match the hopeful prospect of the birth of a child. Only the most jaded and cynical person gives up on searching or waiting for the person or persons who will figure out the solutions to our most intractable problems. The next child, or the newest child, or the child yet to be¸ holds forth that promise.
Throughout human history there has been a steady stream of helpful people – some living relatively short lives – others achieving great age – some simple servants of humanity, others great movers of nations. There is no indication whatsoever that the stream is anywhere near ready to dry up.
But the prospect of achievement is by no means the full measure of the promise of a child. The hope that virtually every child embodies – that humanity persists, that the community has a future, that the family will go on, that former generations will be remembered, and that we won’t die alone – is sufficient to establish the meaning of any child’s life. Being forgotten and alone is at the root of so much human anxiety and suffering.
Every child conceived and born is a community within herself: no child has ever come into existence alone, her life is the fruit of a “communio personi”, the communion of persons¸ that reflects the relations between the members of the Holy Trinity, and in ideal circumstances, the love between the child’s mother and father.
Even in lesser circumstances, in which parents didn’t expect to become parents, her conception transforms them into a mother, into a father, whether or not they wished to be. Every child conceived in a mystical way creates her own family, a family she has an intrinsic right to.
In Scripture and Christian tradition, Wisdom is an essential element of human existence. Experience also shows us how necessary wisdom is to human life. The Old Testament word hokmah and the Greek word Sophia refer to ability and knowledge, understanding, insight and prudence. It also refers to practical knowledge, of the carpenter or stone mason, the economist and the governor.
These are the things that make up the fabric of civilization. Without them society breaks down into chaos, confusion and conflict. With them there is a social order, justice and peaceful relations. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is prudence.” (Prov. 9:10)
God is the ultimate source of wisdom. St. James 1:5 tells us “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.” And he continues “The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace”.
Wisdom brings about peace between nations, fosters hospitality between neighbors, strengthens the bonds within families and ultimately leads us all to God. This is what society, community, family and faith is all about. Without it we’re reduced to brute beasts, competing with each other for survival and dominance.
This is why we are pro-life! The love, advancement and the protection of life is at the very heart of human civilization. It is what makes us truly human and reflects in us the image of our Creator.
The Book of Wisdom (in the KJV bible) adjures us “Seek not death in the error of your life: and pull not upon yourselves destruction with the works of your hands. For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living. For he created all things, that they might have their being: and the generations of the world were healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of death upon the earth: (For righteousness is immortal.)
As Christians that care about the world that God so loves, we have to be for all life and every life because – “Wisdom breathes life into her children”
The pop culture icon Andy Warhol is famous for his observation that we all get our 15 minutes of fame. Well, that was in the primordial era of broadcasting – with the Internet we can get famous in 15 minutes or seconds, or nano-seconds. But fame is fragile, and the entertainment landscape is littered with has-beens who lost their sense of purpose not to mention their identity when the spot-light burned out.
St Paul, writing to his disciple Timothy whom he had consecrated as Bishop for the church in Ephesus, urges us to pray so that – “we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2)
The sage advice of St Paul is crucial in this age of celebrity and calls us to quiet reflection in the cacophony of noise generated by the culture it propels. Under the inspiration of the holy Spirit, the Apostle invites us not to “quiet lives of desperation” but to find the meaning and purpose of what I call “quiet lives of dedication.” These are the lives lived by our greatest saints, many of whom were unknown while alive, undistinguished, even despised for their simplicity. And these are the lives lived by most of us – we’re not made of the stuff that commands attention, makes the news, or qualifies for our own reality cable program.
What is this quiet and tranquil life?
1. The Greek term used is eremos, from which we get our word “hermit”: Paul certainly doesn’t mean we should all live as hermits. But what is characteristic of a hermitage? It speaks of a life of quiet, unnoticed faithfulness to God, to family, to community and to country. A quiet life is one that lives out Christian values humbly and without notice.
2. The word translated tranquil is hesuchios: literally meaning “to keep one’s seat” by implication “undisturbed”, peaceable, steady. These are the people whose interests, loves and commitments don’t keep changing, shifting. When they make a commitment they keep it, unless it was a bad one or one that needs strengthening, then they stick to their core commitment, only changing up what needs strengthening.
We know Christian people who live lives like this: A loving wife and mother who always puts her kids needs first. A faithful husband and father who slugs it out on a job he’d rather not have but endures conscientiously to meet his family’s needs and make sure they receive what they need to succeed in life. A faithful priest who gives up a life of plenty and personal companionship to share his love with God’s whole family, the Church. A faithful employee who honestly works hard so that his employer might succeed, and joins in that success to be sure others have the same opportunity. Those who treat others fairly even when she isn’t treated right because its the right thing to do by God and others.
These are the people who pray, treat their neighbors fairly, and work to support themselves and others. They love their spouses and children, honor their parents and obey the laws of church and society. They do it because they know it’s right, not because they want attention. When they do wrong they confess it to God and make it right by their neighbor as best they can.
As a priest, I love the confessional because I’m praying with these folks more than any others.
The American essayist Henry David Thoreau wrote that most men live “quiet lives of desperation” I disagree. Why? Because of my experience in the confessional. I’d change that statement to be, “Most people live quiet lives of faithful devotion” to their families, their vocation and to God. How do I know? I hear them in the Confessional!
“What do you mean”, you say? “They’re confessing their sins.” Well, I see the confessional differently. In the confessional I see people striving to do better, to be better. I hear people renewing their commitments, strengthening their bonds. I see hearts of love, wanting to love God more and love people better. That’s why I love the Confessional, because it fills me with hope for a better world.
But these are not Bishop TuTu’s, or Bono’s or Angelina Jolie’s with entourages and camera crews in tow. They are quiet folks, living quiet lives of faithfulness: to God, to their spouses, children and Grandchildren, to their neighbors’ well being and to their country.
This is the necessary foundation for a caring community where everybody can become the persons God created them to be: mirrors of goodness reflecting the brightness of God’s love for them toward others and lighting up the dark shadows of sin and loss.
So this is what Paul urges: pray that those who are responsible to us as public officials, who set policies and serve the people in government will not get in the way of us quietly observing God’s law, loving others and seeking what’s best for them, treating others with justice and fairness, and building a civilization of love and life one foundation stone at a time.
The real problem with grand public schemes of social justice is that the fanfare and publicity attached to them (not to mention the egos) crowd out the quiet folk who do this good work daily, year in and year out, their whole lives long. The “Big Plans” announced out of the State House or Capital, the White House, Congress or Federal Courts are short-lived and by their nature impersonal and often cause more harm than good.
The Church teaches that the best care is provided by the people and services closest to those in need. This begins within families and between neighbors, and so on. Example: if you’re late leaving work and your child needs to be picked up at school, instinctively who are you going to call – A government agent on Capitol Hill to fly in and pick up your child? No, you’re going to turn first to family, if they’re not available to a neighbor, if not the neighbor a colleague and so on. You’d go to the government last. Why? Because you know those closest to you are best disposed to helping you. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
When we live quiet lives of caring for one another we’re doing what God expects – and we’re doing it the way he expects us to.
We don’t have to do extravagant things to be faithful to God and His will for us. The Gospel sums it up in a single sentence: “The person who is trustworthy (faithful) in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.” (Luke 16:10)
That is the true dignity of a quiet life! Let us choose to walk in this way and find the peace it offers those who embrace the invitation.