Monday, August 29, 2011

Saint Ambrose on Saint John the Baptist

In the Divine Office this morning we have the following for the Feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

From St. Ambrose's book on Virgins:
The memory of Saint John the Baptist is not to be passed over hastily; it is important that we should notice who was killed, and by whom, and for what reason, how, and on what occasion.  The just man is killed by adulterers, the death sentence is passed on the judge by the guilty.  And so the reward of the dancing-girl was the death of the Prophet.  Finally (which would horrify even barbarians), the order to carry out the cruel deed is proclaimed amid feasting and merry-making; and from the banquet to the prison, from the prison to the banquet, the obedient messenger of this cruel crime goes back and forth.  How many crimes are contained in this one wicked deed!
These words of the holy bishop lead me to the thought that John's death was profoundly Christlike.  At the first station of the traditional Way of the Cross we reflect on the irony of the sinless Christ being condemned by sinful man.  Soon after Christ's earthly sojourn we are told of a deacon who is full of faith and the Holy Ghost, whose fearless and powerful preaching, like the Forerunner's before him, gets him in much trouble.  In fact, Saint Luke describes Stephen's violent and cruel murder in terms which cannot help but remind the hearer of the Passion of Christ.  How appropriate that Saint John, the last of the Prophets, and Saint Stephen, arguably the first Christian to really get it and take the Gospel seriously, both die in ways which bear certain resemblances to the death of their Lord.  John points to Christ by means of his death as surely as he does in his life and preaching, which is to say that his ministry included his martyrdom, his ultimate witness.  And Stephen points back to Christ by means of a pure, Christlike diaconate, one which culminates in the laying down of his life at the hands of evil men, all of which, by the way, gives a lasting impression on one who will later be snatched up by Christ personally for His service throughout the Roman world. 

The mystery of Christ's holy suffering, death, and resurrection is the once for all sacrifice for sin.  It is also the pattern for the lives of those baptized into Christ.  The cruciform life of the Christian is to be expected, for the life we now live in the flesh we live by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved us, and gave Himself for us.  Therefore, take heart when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for Christ's sake.  You don't feel blessed, but you are.  The prophets were treated likewise.  And they in turn were simply treated like the greatest Prophet Himself, Christ our Lord.

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