The Passion of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings

What we are celebrating in today’s feast is the fact that prison bars cannot silence truth. John the Baptist was not asked to renounce his faith; indeed Herod was probably very interested in John’s faith and may have even asked him about it on occasion. Not that he wanted to convert, mind you, but he just seemed to have a kind of morbid fascination with the man Jesus, and anyone who followed him. But the real reason that he kept John locked up was that Herodias didn’t like John, who had a following, publicly telling them what they should and should not do. Herod’s taking his brother’s wife was not permitted in Judaism, but, in her mind, it would all blow over if John would just stop talking about it.

But that’s not how the truth works. And John’s one purpose in life was to testify to the Truth — Truth with a capital “T” — to point the way to Jesus. So he was not about to soft-pedal the wrong that Herod and Herodias were doing. And that was something Herodias just could not live with. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, she eagerly had John beheaded and rid herself of his prophecy. But that didn’t make her any less accountable to the truth.

This could be a rather sad feast. The end of one who worked hard for the reign of God, and over something seemingly so silly. But, as St. Bede the Venerable says of him: “There is no doubt that blessed John suffered imprisonment and chains as a witness to our Redeemer, whose forerunner he was, and gave his life for him. His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless … does Christ not say: ‘I am the truth?’ Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.”

And so, for those of us who are heirs of the Truth, this is indeed a joyful feast. John the Baptist could not keep silent about the truth, whether it was truth with a capital or lower-case “T”. We must not keep silent about the truth either. We are called to offer our own lives as a testimony to the truth, even when it’s inconvenient.

The Passion of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings

What we are celebrating in today’s feast is the fact that prison bars cannot silence truth. John the Baptist was not asked to renounce his faith; indeed Herod was probably very interested in John’s faith and may have even asked him about it on occasion. Not that he wanted to convert, mind you, but he just seemed to have a kind of morbid fascination with the man Jesus, and anyone who followed him. But the real reason that he kept John locked up was that Herodias didn’t like John, who had a following, publicly telling them what they should and should not do. Herod’s taking his brother’s wife was not permitted in Judaism, but, in her mind, it would all blow over if John would just stop talking about it.

But that’s not how the truth works. And John’s one purpose in life was to testify to the Truth — Truth with a capital “T” — to point the way to Jesus. So he was not about to soft-pedal the wrong that Herod and Herodias were doing. And that was something Herodias just could not live with. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, she eagerly had John beheaded and rid herself of his prophecy. But that didn’t make her any less accountable to the truth.

This could be a rather sad feast. The end of one who worked hard for the reign of God, and over something seemingly so silly. But, as St. Bede the Venerable says of him: “There is no doubt that blessed John suffered imprisonment and chains as a witness to our Redeemer, whose forerunner he was, and gave his life for him. His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless … does Christ not say: ‘I am the truth?’ Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.”

And so, for those of us who are heirs of the Truth, this is indeed a joyful feast. John the Baptist could not keep silent about the truth, whether it was truth with a capital or lower-case “T”. We must not keep silent about the truth either. We are called to offer our own lives as a testimony to the truth, even when it’s inconvenient.

Saint Justin, Martyr

Today’s readings

The greatest men and women who have ever lived have followed the example of our Lord Jesus Christ in that they have been willing to give their lives for the truth, for what they believed in, for what is right. In our first reading, Tobit risks his life in order to give a fallen kinsman a proper burial. Tobit and his family had been exiled to Ninevah, and the people there were hostile to the Israelites. Their hostility was so noteworthy, that in another book, Jonah famously refuses to go there and instead gets swallowed up by a large fish. So Tobit has previously narrowly escaped execution for showing charity to his fellows in exile, and he ignores the obvious lesson in order to do what is right.

For Saint Justin, whose feast we celebrate today, he chose to stand up for the truth. He was born a pagan, and spent a good deal of his youth studying pagan philosophy, principally that of Plato. But he eventually found that Christianity answered the great questions of life and existence better than did the pagan philosophers, so he converted. He wrote famous apologies, defenses of the Christian faith, to the Roman emperor and to the senate. Because of his unwavering dedication to his faith, he was beheaded in Rome in the year 165.

“The just one shall be an everlasting remembrance,” says the Psalmist today. All of us are called to live our faith with conviction, as did Tobit and Saint Justin. We might never be in the dire straits in which they found themselves, but we too are called to give our lives, our comforts, our standing in the community, our reputation among our peers, for the faith. Today we pray for the grace to live what we believe and to be an everlasting remembrance.

Saint Andrew Dŭng-Lạc, Priest, and Companions, Martyrs

Today’s readings

St. Andrew Dŭng-Lạc was a priest in Vietnam in the early nineteenth century. He and his 116 companions, including Spanish Dominicans, members of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, and 96 Vietnamese, including 36 other priests, were all martyred around the year 1839. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were martyred in Vietnam during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

Like the poor widow in today’s Gospel reading, St. Andrew and his companions willingly gave everything – their very lives – for the faith and for our Lord. Because of their generosity and courage, the faith exists in Vietnam today. The cross has long been part of Vietnam’s history, from the early days of those persecutions, to the more recent history of war, and later communist rule. The faith is still there, but many have given up homes, lands, and even lives to pay for it.

As our Church year ends, may we take courage from the example of the Vietnamese martyrs and courageously rededicate ourselves to witnessing to the faith, regardless of the cost.

Monday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

So they drag Saint Stephen before the Sanhedrin, and make all sorts of false claims against him.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  We heard a story just like this during Holy Week!  In fact, Stephen is in good company.  He is brought to the same place where his Lord Jesus, and later Peter and the apostles, have gone before him.  And just like all of them, even with all the lies and accusations flying around him, he is at peace.  The source of his peace, is of course, his Lord who has gone before him, that same Lord who now fills him, as the first line of the reading says, with “grace and power.”  The peace that fills the martyrs is remarkable, and indicates that they have indeed been called to that kind of witness and are empowered to withstand it by their God.

We too, will be tested in this life because of our faith.  It’s the mark, really, of authentic faith.  We too, can rely on that same grace and power if we unite ourselves to our Risen Lord.  Maybe we won’t be called on to actually give up our lives, but we will are all called at one time or another to suffer in some way when we give that true witness to our faith.  Like Stephen and the martyrs, that is our calling, it’s what disciples do, and we can rely on the help of the Lord to get us through it.

Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Agnes, a virgin and martyr of the Church.  She is thought to have lived and died in the third century, but little is really known of her life.  She is mentioned in the first Eucharistic Prayer in the list of saints: “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints.”

What is known about Saint Agnes might not be one hundred percent factual, but it is instead meant to foster our own lives of holiness and dedication to the Lord.  Legend tells us that Agnes was a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen years old, and very beautiful.  Many young men longed for her, lusted after her, really, and one such man, having looked at her lustfully, lost his eyesight.  But his sight was restored when Agnes herself prayed for him.

Because of her dedication to Christ, she refused the advances of the men who lusted after her.  And one such man, having been refused, reported her to the government for being a Christian.  She was arrested and confined in a house of prostitution, and was eventually put to death, although the method of her death is unclear.  She was buried near Rome in a catacomb that was then named in her honor, and Constantine’s daughter later built a basilica in her honor.

Saint Ambrose wrote of her in his discourse on virginity, saying: “This is a virgin’s birthday; let us follow the example of her chastity.  It is a martyr’s birthday; let us offer sacrifices; it is the birthday of holy Agnes: let men be filled with wonder, little ones with hope, married women with awe, and the unmarried with emulation.  It seems to me that this child, holy beyond her years and courageous beyond human nature, receives the name of Agnes [which is the Greek word for “pure”] not as an earthly designation but as a revelation from God of what she was to be.”

May the intercession of Saint Agnes lead us all to a reclaiming of virtue and holiness, and above all, an uncompromising love for Christ.

Ss. Isaac Jogues, John de Brébeuf and Companions, Martyrs

Today’s readings
Mass for the school children.

When I was your age, I used to like watching movies about the “wild west,” and playing cowboys and Indians.  It was fun to think about our history in those days and to re-enact what we thought it must have been like.  But the truth is, the history of the frontier that included our nation was pretty dark, and pretty barbaric, and quite often very sad.  Just like in lots of times and places in the world and in history, men and women who were people of faith gave their lives for the faith.  Life was dangerous and brutal, but courageous people brought faith to this land.

Saints Isaac Jogues and John de Brébeuf were Jesuits from France.   They lived in the seventeenth century and worked among the various Indian tribes, bringing them the Christian faith.  Father Isaac worked among the Huron Indians.  The Hurons were constantly being attacked by the Iroquois.  Father Isaac was captured and tortured for thirteen months.  When he finally managed to escape back to France, he returned with many fingers missing from his torture.  Priests aren’t allowed to say Mass if they don’t have all of their hands, but Father Isaac received special permission to say Mass from Pope Urban VIII who said, “It would be shameful that a martyr of Christ be not allowed to drink the Blood of Christ.”  Now you’d think that having escaped to safety, Father Isaac would have stayed put, but he didn’t.  He still had a deep concern and love for his friends the Huron Indians and so he returned to the New World.  But on the way, he was captured by a Mohawk Indian party who tomahawked and beheaded him on October 18, 1646.

Father John de Brébeuf lived and worked in Canada for 24 years until the English expelled the Jesuits from the land.  He returned four years later, also to work among the Hurons.  He composed catechisms and a dictionary in Huron, and saw 7,000 people converted to the faith before his death.  He was captured by the Iroquois and died after four hours of extreme torture.

Father Isaac and Father John were two of eight Jesuits who gave their lives for the faith in North America.  They were canonized – made saints – in 1930.  They knew what Jesus meant in today’s Gospel when he said, “Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.  Do not be afraid.  You are worth more than many sparrows.”  Those eight men lived during very dangerous times.  They had seen a lot of violence in the New World, but they were not afraid.  They gave their lives willingly so that people would come to know the Lord Jesus who gave his own life for all of us.

Now, you probably won’t ever have to decide whether to keep believing in Jesus and die or renounce him and live.  But you absolutely will have to decide to keep believing in Jesus even when it’s unpopular.  To believe even when your friends want to do something wrong.  Even when you are tempted to cheat in school, make fun of someone because everyone else is doing it, or try drugs, or look at things on the Internet you’re not supposed to, or hang out with the wrong crowd.  It’s going to be hard and maybe even a little scary to say no to those things and yes to your faith in God.  But that’s what Jesus is asking you to do today.  And he is telling you not to be afraid to do that, not to be afraid to stand up for your faith.  Because he will help you do the right thing.  And saints like Isaac Jogues and John de Brébeuf will intercede for you and will be your guides.  All you have to do is to decide to do the right thing.  Remember, Jesus tells you today, God takes care of even the little sparrows.  And you are worth more than many, many sparrows!

Monday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Right at the end of today’s first reading is one of the most chilling lines in all of Scripture: “and they did die.”  The people’s faith was sorely tested: would they give in and worship the false gods of the people around them so that they could have some kind of peace and security, or would they prefer to stand up for what they believed and more likely than not, give their lives for their faith?  Many gave up and gave in and worshipped the false gods.  But many stood their ground and clung to their belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But, let’s be clear about this: they all died.  In some way.  Those who were martyred literally gave their lives for the faith, we get that.  But those who chose to give up and give in brought about the death of their culture and the death of their souls.  Sure, they may have had some kind of peace and security now, but who would protect them if the people they allied themselves with were overtaken?  And that is to say nothing of their eternal souls.  They did die.

The persecution never ends.  It would be easier in our own day to give in and accept abortion as a necessity, or to accept whatever special interest groups think is best for us, or keep our faith private and never share it or show it in any way.  Our culture would like that; they would appreciate our willingness to blend in and not give offense.  But that would be the death of our way of life and our spirituality.  It will surely cost us to witness to our faith, to challenge co-workers when a business deal blurs the lines of morality, to insist that our children attend Church on Sunday before they go to a weekend-long soccer tournament, or whatever the challenge may be.

But better that we die a little for our faith than that we die without faith at all.

Monday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s first reading has one of the most chilling lines in all of Scripture: “and they did die.”  Their faith was sorely tested: would they give in and worship the false gods of the people around them so that they could have some kind of peace and security, or would they prefer to stand up for what they believed and more likely than not, give their lives for their faith?  Many gave up and gave in and worshipped the false gods.  Many stood their ground and clung to their belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But, let’s be clear about this: they all died.  In some way.  Those who were martyred literally gave their lives for the faith, we get that.  But those who chose to give up and give in brought about the death of their culture and the death of their souls.  Sure, they may have had some kind of peace and security now, but who would protect them if the people they allied themselves with were overtaken?  And that is to say nothing of their eternal souls.

The persecution never ends.  It would be easier in our own day to give in and accept abortion as a necessity, or keep our faith private and never share it or show it in any way.  Our culture would like that; they would appreciate our willingness to blend in and not give offense.  But that would be the death of our way of life and our spirituality.  It will surely cost us to witness to our faith, to challenge co-workers when a business deal blurs the lines of morality, to insist that our children attend Church on Sunday before they go to a weekend-long soccer tournament, or whatever the challenge may be.

But better that we die a little for our faith than our faith die out completely.

St. Isaac Jogues, John de Brébeuf and Companions, Martyrs

Today’s readings

St. Isaac and St. John were among eight missionaries who worked among the Huron and Iroquois Indians in the New World in the seventeenth century. They were devoted to their work and were accomplishing many conversions. The conversions, though, were not welcomed by the tribes, and eventually St. Isaac was captured and imprisoned by the Iroquois for months. He was moved from village to village and was tortured and beaten all along the way. Eventually he was able to escape and return to France. But zeal for his mission compelled him to return, and to resume his work among the Indians when a peace treaty was signed in 1646. His belief that the peace treaty would be observed turned out to be false hope, and he was captured by a Mohawk war party and beheaded.

St. John worked among the Iroquois and ministered to them amid a smallpox epidemic. As a scholastic Jesuit, he was able to compose a catechism and write a dictionary in Huron, which made possible many conversions. He was eventually captured, tortured and killed by the Iroquois.

St. John prayed for the grace to accept the martyrdom he knew he may one day have to suffer. He wrote about it in his diary:

May I die only for you, if you will grant me this grace, since you willingly died for me. Let me so live that you may grant me the gift of such a happy death. In this way, my God and Savior, I will take from your hand the cup of your sufferings and call on your name: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

My God, it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not been driven from it. My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all.

What we see in St. Isaac and St. John and their companions is that we can never relax our zeal for the mission. Whatever the costs to us, Christ must be made known, those who do not believe must be converted, and sin must be driven out of every time and place. Today’s Gospel reading calls us to store up treasure in heaven, knowing that the things of this world are fading.  St. Isaac, St. John and their commandments inspire us to do this very thing: making Christ known, relying on the treasure of blessing he brings us and promises us, and accepting that this world’s glory is not worth our aspirations.  This will not be easy, of course, in a culture that largely rejects the promises of heaven in its pursuit of instant gratification.  But perhaps the witness of these French Jesuits would help us to bravely witness to the Truth with the same zeal for the mission that they did. Our mission may not be to a culture so different to us as the Indian cultures were to these men, but that mission is none the less vital to the salvation of the world.