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A Man of Principle: St. John the Baptist
A Belated Reflection on John the Baptist
The playwright Robert Bolt was once asked to explain his admiration for St. Thomas More, the Catholic Saint beheaded by Henry VIII of England because he, More, would not recognize the divorce of Henry from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, nor Henry’s subsequent, pretended remarriage to Anne Bolynn. Bolt’s admiration for More was evident in his famous play, A Man for All Seasons; but some viewers were puzzled, for Bolt himself was a nonbeliever. He explained that what he admired so much about More was his integrity:
Why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie? For this reason: A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee.
St. Thomas More brings to mind another man of principle, another man who would not tell a very ordinary lie even to save his own life: St. John the Baptist. The two men both have something in common. Both can be plainly and fairly said to have died in defense in marriage, that is, in defense of what God Himself declared marriage to be in the beginning, and what Our Lord declared marriage to be when He walked the earth:
Have ye not read, that he who made man from the beginning, made them male and female? And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. (Matt. 19:4-6).
From this principle neither St. Thomas More, nor St. John the Baptist, would budge one iota, not even for the convenience of the kings of their own day. Like St. Thomas, St. John would stand upon the truth of God whatever it cost him.
What we know for certain about St. John comes from the Gospels; he was a cousin of Our Lord, born to his mother Elizabeth in her old age. Renaissance painters delighted to show the two of them together as children; Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow with the Christ Child and John the Baptist is an especially famous example, though we know little of their actual childhood together.
We do know that John took his mission as the forerunner of the Messiah very seriously. His own needs were simple, and he met them the same way; Matthew tells us that he came clothed in a camel skin, eating only locusts and wild honey. Nor did he go to the cities and towns where crowds and important hearers were to be found. Rather, John went to the desert. He was Isaiah’s voice “[c]rying in the wilderness, Make ready the way of the Lord.” His reputation spread to Jerusalem and beyond, and many came out to the desert to be baptized by him. Even the religious scholars and elite of his day, the scribes and Pharisees, came to hear him.
If the young St. John was portrayed as sweet and graceful by Raphael and by other Renaissance painters, as a voice in the wilderness, he was hard as nails, or as the truth. He wore no soft clothes, nor ate fine foods. Rather than making friends and influencing people, he denounced the scribes and Pharisees who came to hear him, warning them also to repent, else they would not be spared the coming wrath.
St. John taught the truth, and he could not soften it, not even for the decadent, decaying descendant of the once mighty Maccabees: King Herod Antiphas. Where St. John lived in the desert, King Herod lived in a fine palace; where St. John wore a camel skin and ate locusts and wild honey, King Herod wore soft clothes and ate the finest of foods. If there was one man St. John might have been wise to avoid angering, it was King Herod Antiphas. But John cared little for worldly wisdom. When King Herod called St. John to him, perhaps out of curiosity to hear what he might say, St. John pulled no punches. He pointed straight at Herod, illicitly “married” to his brother’s wife, and told the king: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod took this no better than Henry VIII did just over 1500 years later.
And for that testimony to the truth of marriage, St. John the Baptist lost his head, the same fate that would later befall St. Thomas More. Two men, separated by so many centuries, but united by their firm adherence to the truth of God. Two men. who believed that marriage was what God had declared it to be, and that no one, not even a king, had the power to make it otherwise.
It is the same today. Marriage remains what God has declared it to be, and no king, government, Supreme Court, or media-entertainment complex, has the power to make it otherwise. We should remember that always and especially this June, when there is so much pressure to think otherwise.
Sts. John the Baptist and Thomas More, pray for us.