Few people are saved (cf. Matthew 7:14). Fewer yet are those enlisted in the canon of Saints of Holy Mother Church. But who receives remembrance and praise like John the Baptist? Two feasts, honoring his two births: his birth from Elizabeth’s womb, and his birth into eternity!
To continue with a liturgical study, it is interesting to look at things old and new. The new Confiteor at Holy Mass gets straight to the point: I confess to God (and everyone else in Heaven), and I confess to you, my brothers and sisters (and everyone else on earth). The old Confiteor took the time to acknowledge a few other people, including John the Baptist, both in the first part (the confession), and in the second part (the petition for prayer). The Baptist was brought to the memory of the Faithful at every offering of the Holy Mass, along with his name being mentioned in the Roman Canon. Such is his import and prestige among the disciples of Our Savior.
John was the privileged herald of the Messiah. And on the feast of his Passion, we see that he was a herald both in life and in death. In life, he went about proclaiming “ECCE, AGNUS DEI!” (Jn 1:29). In death, with joy he proclaimed to the souls in captivity, ‘the Messiah has come, he will come soon to save us’!
Our reflection upon what happens after death is of utmost import. Most people fear death (natural enough I suppose), but this leads very often to a failure of even thinking of what comes after death. This, in effect, can lead to a false understanding, and a practical unbelief in the Afterlife!
So we ought to reflect upon what is to come. Leaving John’s first birth to another feast, let us ponder his second birth. He had seen the Messiah. He had proclaimed Him, pointed Him out, acknowledged His authority, and it was time for John to depart. It has been the case that many Saints have died in a way that reflects the Death of Our Lord. Stephen’s martyrdom is an example in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7:55-60). Peter’s crucifixion, upside down, is another. John is not so different. He had been mistaken to be the Messiah! He was arrested, as was Our Lord. He was maltreated by Herod, as was Our Lord. He dies in the midst of violence, immorality, and the thronging of a mob, as was Our Lord. John Chrysostom speaks of the goodness of John and the wickedness of the circumstances:
John is the school of virtues, the guide of life, the model of holiness, the norm of justice, the mirror of virginity, the stamp of modesty, the exemplar of chastity, the road of repentance, the pardon of sinners, the discipline of faith – John, greater than man, equal to angels, sum of the Law, sanction of the Gospel, voice of the apostles, silence of the prophets, lantern of the world, forerunner of the Judge, center of the whole Trinity! And so great a one as this is given to an incestuous woman, betrayed to an adulteress, awarded to a dancing girl! (“Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints” 520)
…and, we might add, handed over by a man mouthing evil oaths! (Mt 14:1-12)
To move from the evil circumstances of John’s Passion, what good news could we offer to rectify the injustice? John’s Passion was not John’s end. John’s first birth, as our first birth, was ordered to his second birth. It does us little good to have been born, if we are not preparing for birth into eternity. In Biblical language, “It would be better for that man to not have been born!” (cf. Mt 26:24)
John was born into eternal bliss on that day. He was a herald both in life and in death. He was now assured of such joy, and proclaimed it to those in captivity, those who had been waiting for a redeemer, those going back all the way to our first parents. To Adam, John could say, “The New Adam has come! He has come to save us!” To the patriarchs and prophets, John could say, “the King and Ruler of Israel has come!” No longer with distant promises, the faithful in captivity would rise, and look to the gates of deliverance, expectation renewed at the arrival of the Herald. With what joy and elation did John and the rest greet Our Lord when He came in power to save, when He came and trampled the gates of Hell, when He opened the gates of Paradise, when John’s heralding was fulfilled! And the last ‘ECCE’ was the best, for it was not in passing proclamation, but the beginning of an unending beholding. John could fix his gaze on the Lamb of God, the Lamb once slain, never to die again! (Rev 5:6)
The Catholic Encyclopedia. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 486-491. Print.
The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints. First single-volume paperback edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. 520. Print.
The Navarre Bible: Saint Matthew’s Gospel. 3rd edition. New York: Scepter Publishers, 2005. Print.