29 August: Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist

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Readings for today’s matins:

A homily by John Landsberg, Carthusian

Dear brothers, just as the death of Christ gave birth to a countless multitude of Christian believers, so too the precious death of his martyrs and saints gave great increase to the number of the faithful, through the power and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Persecution by tyrants and the killing of the innocents were never able to wipe out Christianity, but on the contrary caused it always to grow very much. We have an example of this in blessed John, the Baptiser of our Lord, whose holy martyrdom we celebrate today. The impious King Herod killed him on account of his piety and wanted to wipe out his memory altogether. Not only did his memory not perish, but thousands of men, enkindled by his example, willingly went to their death for the sake of righteousness and truth. The more the tyrant tried to shame him, the more he made him illustrious. Today, which real Christian does not venerate John the Baptist? Everywhere Catholics celebrate his memory and all generations proclaim him blessed. The fragrance of his virtues fills the whole Church.

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John did not live for himself alone; nor did he die for himself. How many people laden with sins, do we think, were drawn to penance by his harsh and austere life? How many were stirred up to endure adversities by his undeserved death? Why are we inspired today to piety and thanksgiving to God, if not because we recall John the Baptist s death for justice sake, that is, for love of Christ? He did not love his own soul, that is, its sensitive part which is addicted to pleasure and shuns hardships, but he plainly hated it, refusing to assent to its carnal desires. By hating it in this way, or rather by loving it in truth and piety, he kept it for eternal life. Moreover, he did not keep it only for himself, but, by his example he inflamed many to live rightly.

What shall we say of John the Baptist? As the holiest of all, his whole being undoubtedly yearned exceedingly to see the face of God. Thus it is that some martyrs have been ready to die for God and righteousness, to the point of offering the supreme sacrifice. All the saints burn in that way with longing for God, and until it is satisfied, they console themselves in the meantime by speaking to him in continual prayer, listening to him speak in holy Scripture, reminding themselves of his gifts and benefits, and above all by going often to Holy Communion. For there the loftiest and most excellent token of divine love is given to us; and those who love God have really him present there, though all do not experience and enjoy him as he is. We can gather from this that one in whom the desires of the world are extinguished but who burns with those of heaven, who hopes to die in order to be with Christ, who finds no greater consolation than in the sacrament of the altar, such a one may be confident that the love of God is in him.

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It belongs peculiarly to the love of God that one who is aflame with it, gives himself and all that he has to God, for the sake of his honour and will, so much that one would prefer to die his eternal salvation depends on it rather than commit one mortal sin, which grievously offends God. Perfect love however does not only avoid mortal sin, but strives to fulfil God s good pleasure. So John the Baptist willingly despised the life of the body for love of Christ, preferring to disobey the tyrant rather than God. His example, dearest brothers, teaches us that nothing should be preferred to the will of God. To please men is of little value, often it is very harmful. But to have offended God cannot but be immensely harmful. For that reason, with all the friends of God, let us die to our vices and disorders; let us trample on vicious self-love and strive to increase the fervour of our love for Christ, which, in the measure of its ardour, will make us happier in heaven and closer to him. May he grant us this, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Source: Lectionary for Matins – Sanctoral B – 29 August – Readings 9 to 12 (Saint Hugh’s Charterhouse 2021)

Painting: The Beheading of St John the Baptist (Caravaggio)

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