Beheading of St. John the Baptist
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Blackfriars, Oxford U.
The feasts and memorials of John the Baptist always rile me up for some reason. Maybe it's my Southern Baptist's root reasserting themselves. Whatever it is that winds me up about John, one question swims through the murk of my agitation and demands a response: Can we hear the voice of a prophet anymore? Over and through our texting, IM's, cell-phones, iPod earbuds, and the constant hum of civilization's commercial white noise, could we recognize a prophet's voice if we heard it? And if we could hear such a voice and recognize it as a prophet's voice, would we understand the message? Can we even speak Prophetese anymore? These questions were provoked by Mark's account of John's beheading. Nota bene: Herod fears John. Despite this fear, the king keeps the prophet out of hands of a wrathful queen by putting him in prison. And even though John greatly perplexes the king by preaching against his royal marriage, Herod listens to him gladly b/c he considers John to be a righteous and holy man. Thus, when the king is compelled by the terms of a hastily taken oath to have John executed, he is exceedingly sorry. Now, what blows me away about this account of John's execution is that Herod knows John is a genuine prophet. The king can hear John speaking God's Word to him. He understands what John is saying. He even seems to enjoy listening to John berate him for his adultery! Sure, he's perplexed by John's admonitions, but he listens.
Do we? Listen, that is. Can we listen to a prophet? Will we listen to a prophet? It is standard procedure these days to describe our hyperactive culture as “addicted to crisis,” or “exhausted by emergencies,” or “numb to catastrophe.” A daily news cycle in the U.S. isn't complete unless a talking-media-head solemnly announces that something/someone is verging on collapse, teetering on the brink of extinction, just moments from annihilation. When every moment of your life is a crisis, every second of your day an emergency. . .well, it's going to become very easy to grow immune to prophetic voices, even when those voices belong to genuine God-sent prophets. Can we filter out the white noise, all the clamoring, and listen for voices raised in the name of God, listen for words spoken in hope to show us our way back to God? And that's the key, isn't it? Hope. What CNN, the BBC, the NYT, and all the rest lack in their frantic, doomsday reporting is the virtue of Hope. Prophets hope. And prophets manifest that Hope in their words and deeds before God's people. This is what Herod saw in John. The prophet's complete reliance on the truth; his complete trust in the hope that Christ made flesh. John didn't prophesy to Herod for money or fame. He didn't speak the truth to Herod to score political points or get a boost in his poll numbers. He spoke the truth to Herod b/c Herod needed—more than anything at that moment—to hear the voice of his father urging him back onto the righteous path. IOW, Herod needed to know that his salvation was not lost; he was not lost. . .there is always hope.
So, can we hear, recognize, and understand a prophet's voice if we happen to hear one over the banging, clanging, booping and beeping of our hyperactive lives? We can, of course, if we will. Silence is helpful. But even more helpful is your absolute commitment to the virtue of hope. Without it, a genuine prophetic message is going to sound like just another siren, just another alert, just another doomsday prediction. Hope is your white noise filter; hope filters the pollution of despair.
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