Today is the Feast of the birth of John the Baptist, one of my name days, for which I am fortunate to have several per year thanks to John the Baptist’s many feasts. There’s a lot of discussion about the end of John the Baptist, they say things like: speaking “truth to power” will get you killed, etc. I always get a little nervous when I hear people reduce his life to the outcomes of Herod’s spineless hope for a good time with his niece. There a lot more to the story there — most importantly, St. John the Baptist stands in the way of most of the zealots today, just as he did in the Gospels.
Yesterday, Pope Francis spoke of an aspect of John the Baptist in his angelus address. He was speaking of that end in connection with 1) allegiance to Truth; and 2) resisting to go against the voice of conscience, even in the face of deadly force. This translation words it in terms of “walking against the current” but it means the same thing. My point is that there is more to John the Baptist’s martyrdom than being a protester, running around with signs, and becoming a casualty of friendly fire. Pope Francis alludes to it as well in his address:
Today, in many parts of the world, there are martyrs: man and women who are imprisoned, killed for the sole reason of being Christian. And they exist in a larger number than in the first centuries of the Church.
But there is also daily martyrdom, that does not include death but is also a “losing of life” for Christ, accomplishing one’s own duty with love, according to the reasoning of Jesus, the reasoning of the gift [of oneself], of sacrifice. …
But, in the end, … [St. John the Baptist] was killed because of the truth, when he denounced the adultery of king Herod and Herodias. How many people pay a steep price for allegiance to truth! How many upright men prefer to walk against the current, other than denying the voice of conscience, the voice of truth!
There was an ongoing life of struggle for John the Baptist before the finale. That’s the emphasis of Pope Francis and here. I bring it up because we live now in a time when people are looking for the quick out, for an easy fight. Watching comments on the tail of Archbishop Chaput’s letter on Religious Freedom last week makes it kind of clear, people think they can run out, get beheaded, and be a saint. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? St. Peter thought so, too.
A long tradition of iconography of John the Baptist, i.e. the Forerunner shows John’s head on the silver platter at his feet. That’s what St. Peter was looking for when he exclaimed to Jesus at the last Supper that he’d be willing to die with Our Lord. That’s easier said than done, and Our Lord knew it. Jesus even warned St. Peter that he was not ready for that. But what was different about John? The answer is in the passage he is holding in his hands and in John’s exclamation in the Gospel of John where he says, upon seeing Our Lord: I must decrease that He may increase.
Decrease versus Increase
When does “decrease” stop? The tense of the verb is indefinite. It is something ongoing. St. John the Baptist wasn’t selling an instant virtue program. There wasn’t a journal program and self-help tapes sold in a program that, if you order now, you’ll get free shipping. St. John doesn’t even say anything about positive thinking, optimism, or anything within himself — rather, he tells us that GOD will do it. But how? by making the self decrease, we make room for God to increase. God is doing it, but we have to get out of his way. That’s not to say that the Forerunner was nobody, nor is there a shred of false humility in him. Obviously, he spoke truth. But, unlike Peter at the time of his passion, John had been training in ascetic practice. He had, through prayer and fasting, learned to stifle the passions and distractions. Those are the self that must decrease. That’s the work we do.
Peter once thought “the Kingdom is at Hand” meant he could go fight off the enemy in hand-to-hand combat: that he had power on his own
St. Peter is a good clue of the difference between increasing self and decreasing self. Only by decreasing self may Our Lord act instead. St. Peter had great impulses, but on more than one occasion, the Gospels tell us how his distractions and passions got the better of him, how his self prevented God.
St. Peter knew Our Lord and knew at the last supper that he wanted to follow Our Lord, even to death. But Peter is just like us. He gets distracted. Think of when St. Peter sees Our Lord walking on the water. Peter says, “Lord, bid me come to Thee!” And, what happened? Peter walked on water! (watch it!) only as long as his eyes were on Jesus. What does the Gospel tell us? It says “Peter took account of the winds.” In other words, his mind distracted him. Our minds distract us, too. That’s the problem with self-help programs — they may inspire a good thought, like Peter, but they don’t give you the training to destroy the ill effects of distractions. Distractions kill prayer, but Prayer strengthens us against distraction. That’s why Peter’s story of walking on the water has this contrast so strong: Peter has his eyes on Our Lord. Being face to face with Our Lord and focused on Him in conversation is prayer.
St. John the Baptist lived in the desert, in an ascetic life so rugged that even the best guides to spiritual life over the centuries typically condition some statement that not everyone is called to imitate his life. John was focused on Our Lord — he met Him when He was in the womb, and He was looking for the day when he’d see Him again. We know John stayed in prayer and attentive because he recognized Jesus immediately upon seeing Him. We have to fight with our mind’s distractions so we can be attentive to recognize Our Lord in others, in the Blessed Sacrament, and even in the circumstances in our life. St. John was a master, his life long prayer helped him avoid distractions, but he also had another secret that came from fasting. Fasting kills the passions.
People today are confused on that word “passion.” Too much emphasis on only one of the deadly sins has caused people to confuse passions with lustful desires only. It’s actually something worse. The words passion and passive are rooted in the same etymological stem and a good modern statement of what a “passion” is in traditional terms would be “those things you do before you realize it.” Ever have something slip out of your mouth before you can stop it? Even find yourself in the middle of doing something, think to yourself “what am I doing?” and you want to kick yourself for being so stupid? Those impulsive acts are caused by the passions! How do you stem these things? by fasting. Fasting not only destroys real demons, but, to use popular parlance, our “personal demons” too.
John had fasted nearly his whole life. The Gospels tell us he ate locusts and plants. He wore a hair shirt made from camel hair. John had trained himself for the race. Peter hadn’t done so yet. The results speak for themselves: John was able to withstand Herod’s threat of real deadly force. Peter, at the time of the passion, had shirked under the slightest threat. Thank God for Peter that confession came and he could be restored and learn to practice asceticism. Peter would get it right later, and that’s because of Our Lord’s help. Peter finally understood what Our Lord meant when He said sine mihi nihil potestas literally means what the forerunner said: I must decrease that He may increase. Why? my passions and distractions will crowd out Our Lord, and without the Lord, I can do nothing good.
This mastery is another reason why St. John the Baptist is pictured right next to Our Lord in nearly every iconostasis in the world. You are being reminded that to become like Jesus, you must become like John the Baptist and do what he says. The baptist always looks like Our Lord, but a little dirtier, and unkempt. I like that about him, because it reminds me that, like St. Peter, I can pick up from any earlier mistake, no matter how bad it was, repent again, ask Our Lord to forgive me (in sacramental confession), and work to be more like St. John the Baptist through prayer and fasting, just like John, just like Peter.
But, given how important fasting is, where is the message of fasting today? I mentioned in an earlier article that our Bishops have been silent on it for nearly 50 years. The sub-headline of Archbishop Chaput’s article quotes him saying “If laypeople don’t love their Catholic faith enough to struggle for it in the public square, nothing the bishops do will finally matter.” I picked Archbishop Chaput’s statement only because it is recent and the fight at hand over religious liberty lends itself to this distinction between activism and asceticism.
There is another distinction ripe for discussion, though: namely, What faith can Catholics love today when there has been such silence teaching it, and frankly error sown into the lay faithful? How can the laymen keep their eyes on Our Lord, when there is still places where Catholics are told that the Blessed Sacrament is a mere symbol rather than Our Lord physically present? How can Catholics have enough strength to survive their own passions when fasting seems optional at best, considered outdated and gone, and seemingly never imposed by our Bishops? Heck, you aren’t even required to genuflect to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament anymore. The Bishops don’t even make us go to Feast days on any day other than Sunday anymore as it seems everything gets moved to Sunday. It’s almost as if religious liberty is only a Sunday thing, just like the rest of the faith, and only so long as it doesn’t interfere with football, the kids sports teams, golf, and boating. I could easily see how someone could conclude that, thanks to the concessions of the Bishops over the past forty some odd years, being Catholic is an optional one hour per week affair. And it’s only required for that one hour so long as that hour is convenient, which may mean moving it to Saturday afternoon, and provided that you don’t have to kneel, don’t have to change your eating patterns, and don’t have to change anything else that might seem a bit inconvenient or not consistent with whatever other demands fantasyland has summoned most recently.
If we put the assessment of the state of the American Church aside, however, and focus on his point, then I get what Archbishop Chaput is saying, and he is correct in the sense that people in the pews need to be aware and active. I guess what I’m afraid of is, without more imitation of St. John the Baptist, many Catholics, all hyped up with zeal, will do what St. Peter did in the garden. Peter, at that point, went down the path of political activism. As Jesus said, that’s not the way to follow Him. If we are to be followers of Jesus, and standing up for our faith, then we should be being taught the correct faith by our Bishops. There seems to be a disconnect in the last fifty years on that point — one that has left our laypeople precariously unaware of the dangers of mere activism. St. John already had taken the hard way and told others to do the same, that they might recognize Our Lord in all things. I guess we, as laypeople, need the bishops to stop softening the faith, praising everyone else’s faith while not clearly teaching our own, and be bishops, that is real shepherds of our flocks, so that people could actually love it so much that even the threat of death wouldn’t tempt them abandon it. For Heaven’s sake, some bishops over the years have said contraception is OK. No wonder laypeople don’t understand religious freedom.
Peter learned this lesson the hard way — following Jesus isn’t felt banners, self-help programs, and mere enthusiastic exclamations and sentimentality.