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St John the Baptist and Prayer

Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI
General Audience, Wednesday 29 August 2012 - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This last Wednesday in the month of August is the liturgical memorial of the martyrdom of St John the Baptist, the precursor of Jesus. In the Roman Calendar, he is the only saint for whom we celebrate both his birth, on 24th June, and his death through martyrdom. Today’s memorial commemoration dates back to the dedication of a crypt in Sebaste, Samaria, where, from the middle of the 4th century,
his head had been venerated. The cult/devotion then spread to Jerusalem, in the Churches of the East and in Rome, with the title of the Beheading of St John the Baptist. In the Roman Martyrology reference is made to a second discovery of the precious relic, translated for the occasion, to the Church of San Silvestro in Campo Marzio, in Rome.

These little historical references help us to understand how ancient and profound is the veneration of John the Baptist. In the Gospels his role in reference to Jesus stands out clearly. In particular, St Luke recounts his birth, his life in the desert/wilderness, his preaching, and St Mark tells us of his dramatic death in today's Gosepl. John the Baptist began his preaching under the Emperor Tiberius, in (the year) 27-28 AD, and the clear invitation that he addressed to the people who flocked to hear him, was to prepare the way (so as) to welcome the Lord, to straighten the crooked roads/streets of their lives through a radical conversion of heart (cf Lk 3:4). But the Baptist did not limit himself to preaching penance/repentance, conversion, but, by/in recognizing Jesus as “the Lamb of God” come/who came to take away the sin of the world (Jn 1, 29), he had the profound humility to show in Jesus (or Jesus as) the true Messenger/Envoy of God, stepping aside so that Christ could grow, be heard and followed. As the/his last/final act, the Baptist witnessed with his blood to his fidelity/faithfulness to God’s commandments, without giving in or backing away, accomplishing/carrying out his mission to the very end. Saint Bede, a monk in/from/of the 9th century, in his Homilies says cosi: “For [Christ] Saint John gave his life, even if he was was not ordered to deny Jesus Christ, he was ordered to keep silent about the truth” (cf Homily 23: CCL 122, 354). And he did not keep silent about the truth and thus died for Christ who is the Truth. Precisely through/for love of the truth, he did not come down/stoop to compromises and he was not afraid to direct/address strong words to those who had strayed from the road of God.

We see this great figure, this force/strength in passion, in resistance against/to the powerful. We ask/wonder: whence/from where was born this life, this interiority so strong, so upright, so consistent, spent in such a total way/so totally for God and so as to prepare the road for Jesus? The answer is simple: from the rapport/relationship with God, from prayer, which was the thread that conducted/guided his whole existence. John was the divine gift invoked/prayed for for so long by his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth (cf Lk 1, 13); a great gift, humanly beyond their dreams/not to be hoped for/impossible to hope for, because they were both advanced in years and Elizabeth was barren (cf Lk 1,7); but nothing is impossible to God (cf Lk 1, 36). The announcement of this birth happened precisely in the place of prayer, in the temple of Jerusalem, indeed it happened when Zechariah touched/had the great privilege of entering the holiest place of the temple to offer incense to the Lord (cf Lk 1, 8-20). The Baptist’s birth was also marked by prayer: the song of joy, of praise and thanksgiving which Zechariah raised to the Lord and which we recite every morning at Lauds,
the "Benedictus", exalts the action of God in history and prophetically indicates the mission of his son John: to precede/go before the Son of God made flesh so as to prepare his roads/ways (cf Lk 1, 67-79). The entire existence of the Precursor/Forerunner of Jesus was nourished by his relationship with God, in particular the period spent in desert regions (cf Lk 1, 80); desert regions which are the place of temptation, but also the place in which man feels his own poverty because deprived of material support and security, he understands that the only solid reference point is God himself. But John the Baptist was not only a man of prayer, of permanent contact with God, but also a guide to this rapport/relationship. Luke the Evangelist, recalling the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the Our Father, notes that the request was formulated by the disciples with these words: “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (cf Lk 11, 1).

Dear brothers and sisters, celebrating the martyrdom of St John the Baptist reminds us too, Christians of this time, that with love for Christ, for his words and for the Truth, we cannot stoop to compromises. The Truth is Truth; there are no compromises. Christian life demands, so to speak, the “martyrdom” of daily fidelity to the Gospel, the courage, that is, to let Christ grow within us and let him be the One who guides our thought and our actions. However, this can happen in our life only if we have a solid relationship with God. Prayer is not time wasted, it does not take away time from our activities, even apostolic activities, but exactly the opposite is true: only if we are able to have a faithful, constant and trusting life of prayer will God himself give us the ability and strength to live happily and serenely, to surmount difficulties and to witness courageously to him. St John the Baptist, intercede for us, that we may be ever able to preserve the primacy of God in our life. Thank you."