Memorial of Martyrdom of John the Baptist
Today’s memorial of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist prompts reflection on the reality of Christians today being persecuted for practicing faith. It is striking that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus seems to assume that his followers would suffer opposition for following him. Two of the nine beatitudes reveal Jesus’ attitude:
We know that in the first three centuries of Christianity many Christians were martyred for their faith under the persecutions of the Roman emperors. But we may not know that martyrdom happens today also. I was startled to learn that even in my own religious order forty-six Jesuit brothers and priests had lost their lives in the service of the Gospel between 1973 and 2005.
I think we Christians often assume naively that faithfully following Jesus will spare us from persecution and suffering. But this is not what Jesus teaches. Jesus teaches not that we will be spared persecution and suffering for practicing our faith but that we will be blessed in the midst of persecution. The beatitudes proclaim that God’s presence and grace come when most needed. This presence is most needed in persecution.
Being a Christian in today’s culture is not easy. Gospel values often conflict with dominant cultural values of materialism and individualism. When we choose fidelity to Gospel values of regular worship of God and being like Christ in selfless service to our neighbor, we may find ourselves being ridiculed by others as being simplistic and out-of-date. Even friends and family may level such criticism. Though this persecution does not threaten our life, it is real and it hurts. But hear the good news: these moments can become occasions for blessings, “Blest are you when they insult you because of me. . . .”
John the Baptist boldly called the Jews of his day to repentance and conversion. His message was disturbing. Many Jews repented. But not Herod. Rather than repent for living a sinful life Herod decided to kill the prophet proclaiming God’s message; he beheaded John the Baptist.
And John was blest by God and is now a saint.
How comforting for us to recall Jesus’ promise for following him even amid criticism and persecution, “Blest are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven.”
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