The editorial of the month

Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P

by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P

My copy of the 1966 book The Work of John the Baptist, by Jesuit theologian Cardinal Jean Daniélou, is a library reject. The inside cover bears a bold stamp in red—“withdrawn: worn, soiled, obsolete.” I think John the Baptist would have loved that. It sums up the humility that distinguished his saintly life.

 

The birth of John the Baptist

 

The Church celebrates the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (June 24) because there is something indispensable and timeless about his role. Cardinal Daniélou speaks of “a certain permanence in John’s ministry, the ministry of preparation. We may be sure that the final coming will also be prepared by John.” That ministry began even before John was born. John models for us, and predisposes us, for the happiness found only in Jesus Christ. With good reason, it begins in the darkness of his mother’s womb, for so often we live plunged in darkness—of meaninglessness, of loneliness, of powerlessness, of fear and doubt. And then, in the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus draws close to John. The Baptist pierces earth’s darkness with his silent proclamation: Someone is coming for you! Keep your attention fixed on what your heart was made for: Jesus Christ! For you will recognize him when he comes—instantly, leaping with joy like David dancing before the ark of the covenant. “While he was still a baby in a cradle,” writes Daniélou, “something was already shining on his face: the dawn of that sun which was going to rise above the horizon and outshine the sun of the first creation.”

 

The life of John the Baptist

 

Withdrawn into the desert and set on soiled days in camel-hair clothes, John embraced his God-given mission. Love did this to John. He realized the need to retreat to a place, and to assume a lifestyle, in which the Love that had taken hold of him and transformed him in the womb would always remain his priority. John relocates to the desert to turn his back on distraction. “Going out into the desert,” notes Daniélou, “is always the expression of a complete break. Actions like this always reflect an incompatibility between the ways of God and the ways of the world.” John’s mission is the mission. As Daniélou explains: “John became deeply involved in the innermost life of his people, and helped to keep their ideals alive. John’s task was to guide the people’s expectations along the lines marked out by God. John was sent to them to destroy their indifference and delusions, and to make them receptive to God’s plans. He prepared people’s hearts which had to a certain extent become accustomed to despair.” From prison, the author Oscar Wilde wrote a powerful letter—a reflection on his life of sin that paved the way for his conversion to Catholicism. He recalls a breakthrough moment when someone showed him a kindness: “When wisdom has been profitless to me, philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little, lovely, silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity, made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world.” The point is this: God always puts a John the Baptist in our life. He unswervingly gives us someone whose witness makes our desert bloom like a rose.

 

The death of John the Baptist

 

Imprisoned by the treacherous Herod, John became worn and weary, separated from his community of faith. But he continued to proclaim Jesus Christ. “We ought not to marvel that after Herod put John in prison,” says Saint Maximus of Turin, “John continued to announce Christ to his disciples from his confinement, when even confined in the womb he preached the same Lord by his movements.” The Baptist’s views on morality—on marriage in particular— had been judged obsolete. As Saint Bede the Venerable observed, “John the Baptist’s persecutor had demanded, not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth.” But silence about the truth is denial of Christ. The grace of John’s incarceration consisted in his returning to the place where he first met Jesus: in the darkness. Writes Cardinal Daniélou, “John had not lost faith, but he was completely in the dark. For him, the fact of falling into obscurity was nothing compared to the joy in his soul as he beheld the fulfillment of the mystery.” And the lifelong prayer that was one with his breath— He must increase. I must decrease—God honored…even literally. “In his death,” comments Saint Thomas Aquinas, “John dies shortened by decapitation.” May we all be library rejects!