St. John the Baptist Baptizes the People, Poussin 1635, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.
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John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Matthew 3:1.
The figure of St. John the Baptist towers over the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He was, apparently, hugely popular with the people, who came out from the civilized suburbs of Jerusalem to hear him in the wilds of the desert just outside. He baptized them in the waters of the Jordan, he proclaimed the coming of the Lord, stating that he was not worthy to carry his sandals. John 3:30 even records John as saying, “He must become greater; I must become less.” So it would seem that John’s role was to prepare the way of the Lord, as Isaiah 40:43 had proclaimed. He was, in other words, the fulfillment the prophecy of Isaiah.
Let us take a look at this strange man who dressed strangely and ate weirdly. Although very successful at what he did, he said he was doing it for another, one who was greater than he. He was not at all tempted to put himself first, even stating when people asked who he was, by answering (rather oddly) “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20). Indeed, he was fulfilling his vocation to the utmost, to be that voice proclaiming in the wilderness the coming of the Lord.
In 1984 a very grand movie called Amadeus appeared. It charted the career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whom many would proclaim the greatest composer ever. He was, however, a kind of nobody at the start of his career, running away from his employer, the very powerful Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg in Austria for the bright lights of the imperial capital of Vienna. Now the movie plays tricks with the actual history of Mozart in Vienna, but the “amended” version serves the point I will attempt to make. Mozart is brought to the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, Joseph II who considered himself to be an enlightened ruler, and consequently supported the arts. In the movie, almost everyone at the imperial court considered Mozart an arrogant and annoying upstart with little talent. The imperial court composer, Antonio Salieri, was the exception and immediately recognized the young man’s genius and was overcome with jealousy, so much so that he plotted Mozart’s destruction. Although this was not historically true, it makes for great drama. Playing on Mozart’s ambition and arrogance, he slowly drives the younger man to despair and ruin leading to his premature death at age 35. The film opens with Salieri attempting suicide and ending up in a madhouse, where he is attended by a young priest, who offers to hear his confession. The body of the film is the flashback based on this premise. At the end of the film, we return to the non-repentant Salieri and the young priest, devastated by what he has just heard, who says nothing. And here lies my message for today’s readings.
John the Baptist is the living incarnation of the 10th commandment, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. I understand goods to include our neighbor’s success in the world, both in terms of material possessions and personal talent and growth and professional greatness. John was the very first to recognize Jesus as The One, the Messiah. He proclaimed him as such, said now Jesus had appeared, he, John, must grow less; Jesus was to take over, as it were, from him. That is what the priest should have told Salieri. It was Salieri’s Christian duty to support Mozart, to encourage him, to guide him, because he was the only one who understood the greatness of the younger man, and the prodigious talent granted him by God. But he did the opposite. He destroyed him.
So my message is, each of us is called to be a type of John the Baptist. If ever we encounter another person in need, and we are in a position to help, then it is our Christian duty to do so, even if we might recognize in the other greater talent and promise. As a teacher for years, it was my duty whenever I discovered a student way more intelligent than me, to ensure that that person was given full opportunity to grow and develop as far as I could assist. It was my job to do that for all my students, but I tried not to become a Salieri, (who was not like that in real life) if I encountered a super-intelligent pupil. One should rejoice in the gifts that God has blessed that person with and encourage, assist and guide him or her. And so, echoing the first reading today, we should try to the best of our ability to encourage peace, progress and support to all we encounter, ensuring that all swords are turned into plowshares.
Consider the words of the ancient prayer called the Benedictus:
As for you, little child, you shall be called a prophet of God the most high, you shall go ahead of the Lord to prepare his ways before him, to make known to his people their salvation through forgiveness of all their sins, the loving-kindness of the heart of our God, who visits us like the dawn from on high….
I believe that these words, said of the newly-born John the Baptist by his father Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), apply equally to all of us.
The Peaceable Kingdom, Hicks 1834, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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