Isaiah 8:23-9:3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13.17; Matthew 4:12-23
We are contemplating in our liturgy, in the Word and in the Eucharist, the face of Jesus - the human face and the divine face of Christ, asking, as we gaze at him: Who is this man?
Just as the presence of an invisible heavenly body can sometimes be detected by the deflection it causes in the orbits of other heavenly bodies, we now look at the effect Jesus has on the lives of others and we come to understand him as we watch others change the direction, the orbit of their lives.
Hearing that John had been arrested ...
This news comes as a shock. Why was John arrested? If we were to ask him he would most likely say: I was only doing my job.
You see, John was a prophet. It was his vocation, the purpose of his life, to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.
It was to reveal him to
that I came ... Israel
When all is said and done, there is only one way to prepare for the Lord and that is to repent of sin and do good. So it was John's job to get the people ready. They asked him: What must we do then? (Lk 3:10) He told them: Share with the poor, be honest, don't intimidate, don't extort. Be content with your pay.
It's very hard to speak the truth to people. Not many will do it. It means going out of our comfortable orbits, changing direction. John did it even though it must not have been easy for him, but he loved Jesus, who was the invisible star around which his life circled.
Then one day he had to take his life in his hands and tell Herod it was not lawful for him to marry his brother's wife. How do you do a job like that? Do you write a letter? 'Dear Herod, I am writing about your wife and all those other crimes you've committed ...'
Do you stand under the bedroom window and yell it out? 'Hey, Herod, I know you can hear me!' and then run away.
Or maybe make an appointment for an interview and break it to him gently. 'Now, Herod, I don't mean to offend you, and please don't get upset, but ...'
I don't know how John did it but he did it and found himself in deep trouble.
Herod the tetrarch, whom he criticised for his relations with his brother's wife Herodias and for all the other crimes Herod had committed, added a further crime to all the rest by shutting John up in prison. (Lk 3:19-20)
We priests often have to tell people difficult truths. 'You mustn't receive Holy Communion till your annulment is through. You can't be a lector till you stop living with your boyfriend. If you deliberately miss Mass you must first go to Reconciliation before you receive Communion again. I am not able to offer you Holy Communion because you are not a Catholic. If you want to be an altar server you must come to Mass every Sunday.' On and on the list goes.
It's difficult to tell some people unpleasant truths but that's the vocation of a prophet and every priest is a prophet through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Some people take the truth easily. They like it. They are even grateful. But others can get very, very angry when you tell them the truth.
Do not rebuke the mocker, he will only hate you, rebuke a wise man and he will love you for it. (Pr 9:8)
I remember a young couple who were living together and still coming to Communion. I told them it was against the law and displeasing to Jesus. They got very upset. They went home and complained about it to mum. Fortunately their mum was a believer and backed me up all the way. Next day they came back and admitted I was right. They arranged to set a wedding date. The day before the wedding he went to Confession and as soon as she can the bride will attend the catechumenate and become a Catholic.
Unfortunately others don't respond so well and call you all sorts of names - conservative, backward, confrontational, a bully, and worst of all, divisive. It is my experience that however gently and lovingly you tell some people they will become your enemy if you correct them. Well, that's the price of being a prophet and, of course, John the Baptist paid it in full.
John was a witness to Christ. He did not care about what people thought of him. He had come to call people to repentance and that is what he courageously did. He did not care about peer pressure. He did not care what the other members of the golf club, the mother's club, or even the Bible Study group said about him. He didn't even care what the leaders thought of him: 'Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit .. '(Mtt 3:8)
John bore courageous witness and, as the Mass Preface for his feast says, his death was his last and greatest act of witness to your Son.
When John came out of the wilderness of
Judea and spoke his raw message with the challenging command: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand, one might be forgiven a feeling of disquiet, for thinking 'Hmm, this fellow had better tone down a little or he'll get people upset and angry with him. He could even find himself in trouble.'
If this is so, what do we feel when we hear from Matthew? - From that moment Jesus began his preaching with the message, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand' (Mtt 4:17).