Back in the day when ‘link’ meant a connection between people or things and not an associated internet address, some Christians pointed out a link between certain times of the year, half to John the Baptist and the other share to Jesus. The solemnity that honors the birth of John is celebrated on June 24, beginning with a vigil the night before. The solemnity that honors the birth of Jesus is six months later on December 25 and begins when the sun sets the night before.
John was obviously older than Jesus, known just from the information in Luke’s Gospel. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was near delivery when the Blessed Mother came to assist her, barely beginning a pregnancy herself. Mary returned home after John was born in plenty of time to prepare for Jesus’ arrival. Proponents of the season of John believe that the six months after his birth are dedicated to preparing for the Nativity of the Lord. Then, the next six months, the time of Jesus, takes the faithful through his early life, ministry, death, Resurrection, and the founding of the Christian faith by his followers.
Stephan is called the first martyr, and indeed, his execution, supervised by Saul of Tarsus is the first recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. John the Baptist is the first person in the Gospels to literally give body and blood for the faith. Bible readers know that he was a wild character: unkempt, lived on bugs and honey, and wore a camel-hair Tarzan suit. He never hesitated to speak up…or down. In the end, that’s what got him beheaded; he condemned the king and his live-in girlfriend for their illicit relationship. Or so they say!
What really got John the Baptist killed was his fervor to ready the way for a new meaning of faith, something Jewish scripture long promised. He prophesied that the words of the prophets were about to come to life, and he began to baptize people in cleansing waters. Each member of the entire dynasty of Herods was paranoid and afraid of losing his throne. John the Baptist was really killed because he had garnered too large a following. Herod Antipas was already unpopular with the Romans, so any excuse to end the life of the troublemaking Baptist would serve his purpose. This is the same Antipas who would one day give his consent to the execution of Jesus, as well.
John knew the risks when he started out; they were the same ones that later faced Peter and Paul, who are celebrated together annually on June 29. All three men were powerful messengers of the good news of Jesus Christ. They took words and deeds to a sometimes hostile people and professed salvation through the Lord. These were the same risks as those taken by the First Martyrs of Rome or Aloysius Gonzaga.
Everyone has heard one version or another of an ancient tale of India about six blind men and an elephant. The story has been retold many times to support different ideas. Initially, it began with each man locating one part of the elephant and imagining that’s what the whole pachyderm was like. One man found the tail and perceived the beast was like a rope; one found the trunk and thought it was a hose, and so on. It took all of their imaginings to realize what the elephant really looked like. So, too, does the Body of Christ require the unique but combined impressions of all the faithful. Jesus is the bread, and we are the body that he feeds.
What gift have I, one may ask, and no doubt, many in history did the same. Noah created the first vineyard and then became the first drunk. Moses had a speech impediment, and couldn’t speak like Charlton Heston. His brother Aaron spoke for him. The Samaritan woman at the well had been married and divorced five times. John the Baptist had that atrocious lifestyle, and Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Some thought Paul a little too religious for their liking. David was an adulterer and a murderer, and Lazarus was dead. Yet, somehow, all these people served the Lord as part of his body.
His blood has flowed and will flow again. In our American homes we may not realize that the persecution of Christians is very much alive in the world today. According to the current campaign of Voice of the Martyrs www.persecution.com there are more than 30,000 Christians imprisoned and/or systematically tortured in North Korea today. Jesus assured his followers that there would be those who would persecute them only because of his namesake. In their blood, those persecuted Christians join with our Lord. There are more than fifty countries in the world in 2014 where the persecution of Christians or hostility towards them is blatant and public.
And then there were those who bore their suffering in silence and were thus, an even greater witness to the kingdom of God: the angels of the World War II death camps, the poor who never complained about their lot in life, and the always penitent souls like St Alexis or Julian of Norwich, and the hermits who abandoned worldly things to think only of the Lord.
With this conclusion to the three part series on the Body of Christ (Corpus Christi), one is called to remember that there is need of every individual in this Body. Although worded differently, each of the four Gospels ends with a call to mission. The faithful are urged to bring their individuality and their blindness to God’s table, so that all may see a complete picture. Like John the Baptist, all are called to open the doors and share the path. Christianity was never a religion for private individuals because part of that mission is the expression of our joy, and yet, privacy too is an expression of that faith. We are to love God and take care of one another. That is the Body and Blood of Christ. One bread, one Body!