The timely and timeless witness of St. John the Baptist
Headlines scream “Marriage Under Attack” as if that were news. Yet marriage has been under attack since the Serpent set in opposition Adam and Eve. From that time forward, human weakness and sin as well as cultural corrosion have beset marriage. Marriage, which nature and revelation show to be the basic building block of human community and civilization, is a favorite target of Satan, whom Saint Ignatius Loyola aptly described in his “Spiritual Exercises” as “the enemy of our human nature.” If one truly hates God and man, then marriage must be a special object of hatred. And if one merely misunderstands God and man, then marriage will be a special object of ignorant mischief. Whenever sin or ignorance touches marriage, soul-sifting pain and social tragedy result.
We can make a good case today that marriage is under especially vigorous assault by its traditional spiritual and secular enemies, and that it’s not getting the help it needs from people who should be its staunchest defenders and friends. Popular culture’s contempt for marriage is nowadays as shrill as it is pervasive. What may well be distinctive about our own times is the civil/legal undermining of marriage, starting with “No-Fault Divorce” two generations ago, to the casual acceptance of contraception and cohabitation, to the attempted legal “re-definition” of marriage by courts and governments around the world. Culture and state are blind or hostile to what man has always known, what God has always said and what the Church has always taught about marriage.
I think of these things as I write today on the Memorial of the Beheading of John the Baptist. I propose the Baptist as a “Martyr-for-Marriage,” for Mark’s Gospel describes how he is imprisoned and finally murdered by Herod and Herodias for stinging their consciences regarding their irregular union. Biblical scholar William Barclay comments, “Those who bring to others the voice of God act like a conscience. Many would silence their consciences if they could, and therefore those who speak for God must always take their lives and their fortune in their hands.”
Silencing one’s conscience is not always so easy. Speaking of Herod’s simultaneous fascination with and dread of the Baptist, Barclay asks, “Herod could fear John and love him, could hate his message and yet not be able to free himself from its insistent fascination. Herod was simply a human being. Are we so very different?”
Most people are not thoroughly good or evil. Most find within their souls a constant tension between right and wrong. We may proclaim the sanctity of marriage, yet tolerate lusts (real and imagined) that violate the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. We may say that children are good yet accept contraception and abortion as inevitable. We may say that marriage is a bond yet divorce is an option. We may echo Scripture’s words, “male and female He created them” and “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church” yet remain indifferent to those who advocate other forms of “marriage.” In other words, simply knowing what is right and true does not always give us the strength to live it and defend it. We are pulled apart, seeing what is good and true, longing for the objects of our disordered desires, fearful of criticism and wanting to fit in. And that’s where Saint John the Baptist may be able to help us.
Consider this beautiful prayer written in his honor:
“John, the school of virtues, the master of life, the form of holiness, the norm of justice, the mirror of virginity, the glory of modesty, the model of chastity, the way of penitents, the forgiveness of sinners, the discipline of the Faith; John greater than man, equal to the Angels, the greatest plant of the law of the Gospel, the voice of the Apostles, the silence of the Prophets, the light of the world, the Forerunner of the Judge, that showeth Christ, the witness of the Lord, that standeth amid the whole Trinity; this man so great is handed over to the unchaste, he is delivered to the adulteress, he is consigned to the dancer.”
The Baptist, who suffered more than most, was faithful until the end. His example and his prayers can help us to overcome our weaknesses and our vices, including our affected ignorance and culpable silence, and so become the defenders of marriage that God calls us to be.
Through the intercession of Saint John the Baptist, Martyr-for-Marriage, may those who have sinned against marriage repent; may those who are estranged in marriage be reconciled; may those discerning marriage be prudent; may those preparing for marriage be chaste; and may those longing for marriage be granted their heart’s desire.
When I write next, I will speak of the pain of unexpected and unpleasant changes. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.