Thursday August 29, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist
Reading (Jeremiah 1:17-19) Gospel (St. Mark 6:17-29)
In the readings and in today's feast we see two extremes, two opposites if you will. We see a righteous man who is speaking the truth and who is living the truth. And as we hear in the prophet Jeremiah that God is going to make him "a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of brass against the whole land", he is to go out and speak whatever it is that God wants for him to speak. Now this is not an easy task. All you have to do is look at what Saint John the Baptist had to preach. You know it was not a popular thing, and, therefore, not necessarily an easy thing on the natural level. The grace was there. He knew what God's Will was, and, because this was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, he was able to fulfill the Will of God in the face of all the opposition that may have been there.
At the very end, as we hear in the Gospel reading, he was preaching against King Herod. This was not Herod the Great who killed the little boys in Bethlehem and wanted to kill Jesus, but this is Herod's son. Herod marries the wife of his own brother; he is committing adultery with this woman. The woman wants to shut John the Baptist up because he keeps trying to tell her that what she is doing is wrong and the guilt that is there on her part. And it is easier to get rid of the messenger than to change, so she wants him dead. But Herod, on the other hand, likes to listen to John the Baptist and did not want him dead.
We see in both of these situations of Herod and Herodias what occurs with sin. Father John Hardon, the late Jesuit priest, had a rather extraordinary statement that he would use rather frequently. He said simply, "It is impossible," and then as Father Hardon would do, he would say, "I repeat - impossible - for anyone who is in the state of mortal sin to see clearly and to think clearly." It is impossible if you are in the state of mortal sin to be able to think clearly. Well, that is what we see today. Herod, who is clearly in the state of mortal sin, is filled with lust after a little girl who comes in and does some unfortunate dance before him and all the people in the court to the point that he says, "I'll give you anything that you ask." Herodias, because of her sin, simply wants this man dead because she thinks that as the queen she has the power over life and death and she thinks it is okay to order such things - as though the death of John the Baptist is going to make what they are doing in their so-called "marriage" something which is okay. As long as no one is bothering them about it, it must be all right. Now, she not only had to live with adultery, she had to live with murder. But, in the immediate, it seemed like the thing to do. You see how the clarity of thought is completely clouded because sin gets in the way.
When we choose sin over righteousness we are not going to be able to think clearly; we have got our priorities wrong. So what we see, then, is the importance for ourselves of making sure that no matter what the area of sin is in our lives - even if it is not mortal sin - it needs to go. It gets in the way; it clouds our vision. Not completely so, as in mortal sin, but nonetheless, even venial sin becomes a stumbling block for us. Every little attachment becomes a stumbling block because we do not want to give it up. And if God wants it gone because it is in the way, we hold onto the attachment rather than to God. We start pulling away from God and giving into areas of sin because we like the wrong thing better than we like God. That is the part we need to look at.
We can learn from the example of Saint John the Baptist to seek the Will of God and to do it in all things, to live a life of righteousness. Now you could say, "Great! If I live a life of righteousness I could get beheaded." Praise the Lord! You go straight to Heaven if you get martyred. But what difference does it make? We are all going to die anyway. If it is today or if it is fifty years from now, who cares? We are going to die anyway. And if you die for doing what is right then you are in great shape. But if you die doing wrong, what is your eternity going to be? If we choose sin in this world, what are we choosing for eternity? You see, the choices we make here are going to have an impact for the rest of eternity. Even if we are choosing imperfections and venial sins over God, we are choosing a lower place in Heaven. If we choose mortal sin, we choose eternity in hell. The choice is ours.
We need to pray to the Lord to be able to see clearly, to be able to make the right decisions, to be able to live a righteous life, to reject sin in all its forms, and to be able to choose what is right and do the Will of God in all things. That has to be the way our lives are ordered: to seek God above all else and to get rid of anything that does not lead us to God, or which leads us away from Him, or stands in the way between us and Him. That is what we need to learn from today's readings, from today's feast. Not if you live a good life that you are going to suffer - the Lord already told us that; we knew that. But rather, to live the good life knowing that if we live a life of righteousness there is nothing that is going to come between us and God.
We can be that fortified city, that pillar of iron, that wall of brass as Saint John the Baptist was: to do the Will of God, to speak the Will of God. And it does not matter if we wind up in prison for it or if we wind up dying for it, that voice will continue to speak just as Saint John the Baptist's voice continues to speak today. Even though he has been dead for 2,000 years, we still hear his voice. And so we see the example and it is very clear the choice we need to make. It is only a question of whether we are willing to do it. If we choose sin, the mind will be clouded and we will be unable to think clearly. If we choose what is right, choose virtue, then we are choosing God, and we are choosing to love Him with our whole heart and soul and strength now and for eternity.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.