Today is the Memorial of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Those of us who pray the Divine Office prayed the Psalms and canticles from Sunday, Week I, which are reserved (when it’s not actually Sunday, Week I) for Big Deal Feast Days. The canticle is Daniel 3: 57-88, and begins this way:
Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord.
Praise and exalt Him above all forever.
Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord.
You heavens, bless the Lord.
All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord.
All you hosts of the Lord, bless the Lord
Sun and moon, bless the Lord.
Stars of Heaven, bless the Lord.
This evening’s Responsory (if it weren’t Saturday evening) would have been, “The friend of the bridegroom rejoices, upon hearing the bridegroom’s voice.”
We’re celebrating! Celebrating the beheading of the Lord’s herald in the wilderness. Celebrating the fact that a cowardly king killed someone he knew was holy because of a drunken promise he made while ogling his step-daughter. Celebrating the death of an innocent man. “No man born of woman is greater than John,” Jesus said of his cousin. So why are we celebrating his death?
Well, Catholics always celebrate the death of our heroes, the saints. Feast days are usually on the anniversary of a saint’s death, not his birth. John the Baptist is the only saint whose birth and death are celebrated, which makes John rather unique. But normally, we don’t think as much about a saint’s birth into this world as we do about his birth into the next world.
There are lots of theological reasons for this, and I’m sure I could dig up terrific links to great thinkers about the topic. But I think that you can still “get it” from a more simplistic view. You don’t need a big vocabulary to understand why we celebrate the death of all of our greatest heroes. Catholics celebrate the death of saints because when they die, ultimately, they’ve reached the goal we ought to have.
The old Baltimore Catechism says that God made us to know, love, and serve Him in this life so we can be happy with Him in the next. By celebrating the death of our saints — people who did know, love, and serve God in their earthly lives — we celebrate the moment when they went to be happy with God in the next life. This is the reward that awaits us, if we don’t succumb to the comforts of this world too much.
Celebrating the martyrdom of someone reminds us that this life and the comforts the world offers us are nothing compared to what awaits us if we are faithful to God. It reminds us that our ultimate goal is not to live as long as we can in this world, but to live well in this world and get on with it to Heaven. In short, our ultimate goal is to die.
This makes us kind of weird to most people, especially in the West. Why would we celebrate death? And why, especially would we celebrate a death at the hands of our enemies — one in which we were helpless and did not defend ourselves at all costs? Part of what makes it hard to live a full Christian life in the West is our comfort: we have all we need, so why do we need God? Our physical needs are taken care of, so we push God to the periphery and only call on Him when we feel like we need something else. But those Christians in parts of the world with great amounts of material poverty and physical dangers have a deep faith that puts my own to shame. The joy they have in the gospel helps them overcome the difficulties in this life because they know in their heart of hearts that when they follow Jesus, He will lead them to their true home: Heaven. The trials of this life are nothing. The physical dangers don’t matter. They risk their lives to attend Mass, and they sing for joy while they are there. And if they lose family members to ISIS, they celebrate their deaths! These Christians know that death for Christ means that you are freed to go to Him. In many parts of the world, the decision to follow Jesus is also a decision to accept martyrdom if it should come to you. (And that it’s likely to happen.)
What kind of faith is this? How does my own compare?
Lord, help us to all have the faith of these martyrs and their families. Teach us to love You above all things of this world, including our own lives. Help us to know, love, and serve You better in this life so that we might be happy with You in the next.