A. Perhaps it is only coincidental that the Gospel episode of John’s beheading and the blessing of throats on the feast of St Blaise occur on the same day! In any event, at the end of Mass I will offer the traditional throat blessing asking God the Father to keep us in good health and on the road to holiness, as we, the family of the Knights of Columbus, pursue the mission of His Son, Jesus.
B. In fact, this is exactly where our Scripture readings and the feast of St. Blaise lead us: deep into the mission that Jesus came into the world to accomplish. So, what does today’s liturgy tell us about the Lord’s mission and our role in it?
II. Who Is Jesus?
A. A good place to start is the intense curiosity Jesus generated as he traveled around Galilee announcing the reign of God. The way the Gospel of Mark tells it, as Jesus went from town to town in Galilee preaching the Good News and curing the sick, it was like a triumphal march. The crowds grew in size; Jesus’ fame spread; people wanted to know, “who is this?”
B. Among those who wanted to know was Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and the surrounding region under the Roman Emperor. Herod Antipas was one of the many sons of Herod the Great who had been in power at the time of Jesus’ birth. It was he who had slaughtered the innocents in an effort to do away with Jesus. Well, the apple had not fallen from the tree; both father and son were brutal men; each harbored a fearful fascination about Jesus.
C. As we saw in the Gospel reading, Herod Antipas was tuned into popular opinion about just who this Jesus was. Then, as now, popular opinion ranged from the fantastic to the irksome, and so we find Herod trying to sort it all out. Many thought Jesus was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets come back from the dead. But Jews did not believe anyone would come back to life until the end of the world. And Herod was sure he had beheaded John the Baptist in prison. So just who was this popular, itinerant preacher and wonderworker?
D. Leave it to the Letter to the Hebrews to bring us the clarity that was lacking in Herod’s ruminations. It simply says: “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. The Christ in Bethlehem is the Christ of Galilee, is the Christ of the Crucifixion, is the Christ of the Resurrection, is the Christ of Eucharist. It is the same Christ: the Incarnate Son of God, the Redeemer of Man.
III. The Pattern of the Cross
A. Herod’s musings about Jesus, however, prompts Mark to give us a flashback in which he vividly and disturbingly describes John the Baptist’s martyrdom. Indeed, Mark hints at the only way we can truly understand John’s death: John’s self-offering foreshadowed the death of Jesus and, in a hidden way, shared in the fruitfulness of the Cross. John bore witness to Jesus in many ways but his greatest act of witness was the shedding of his blood for Christ. Both in life and in death, John’s mission was patterned on the Cross.
B. So let us bounce back to the Letter to the Hebrews where we find the author exhorting the early Christian community in Jerusalem on how they too should lead a life patterned on the Cross. Such a life entails love and concern for one’s neighbor; generous hospitality; closeness to those who are suffering, especially those persecuted for the faith. A life modeled on the Cross honors God’s design for marriage and avoids all forms of sexual immorality. Such a life does not find its security in money but in God’s strength and generosity. People who live like that bear witness to the Cross of Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Let’s not forget that many who first heard this letter did in fact suffer martyrdom. Like John the Baptist, their death was patterned on Christ’s self-offering.
C. And lest we also forget, St. Blaise was no mere wonderworker; he too was martyr. He was a 4th century Armenian bishop who gave his life in witness of the true faith. Like John the Baptist, he was put to death in an exceptionally cruel way. And through Jesus, St. Blaise’s sufferings are a source of healing.
IV. Holiness and Mission
A. Now, for us, all of this might be summarized in two words: holiness and mission. Holiness means more than being curious about Jesus (as was Herod) and more than merely knowing the right answer as to who Jesus was and is. Holiness means entering deeply into the mystery of Christ, so much so, that we can say with St. Paul, “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me!” Holiness demands that we inwardly absorb the radiant truth and love of Jesus so that we can reflect it outwardly in a manner of life patterned on the Cross. This is how the mission of Jesus advances in the world.
B. Happily, our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews brings all of this home to us specifically as the family of the Knights of Columbus, when it says: “Let brotherly love continue!” There we have it: Charity and Fraternity! And the rest of the reading describes what our Order strives to do: to offer a warm welcome to those in need; to serve those who are persecuted for their faith, especially in the Middle East; to maintain the sanctity of marriage in a neo-pagan culture; to place our resources, with trust in God, at the service of our members and at the service of those who are in need. Father McGivney, it turns out, bequeathed to us a way of life patterned on the Cross!
C. May we live this life and accomplish our mission to the fullest and hand it on to succeeding generations! Vivat Jesus!