Cardinal Pell's Homily on John the Baptist

«John’s call to repentance and therefore forgiveness is as necessary now as it was 2,000 years ago»

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ROME, JUNE 26, 2012 ( Last Sunday, on the Feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, Cardinal George Pell celebrated Mass in the Church of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome. This church, originally built in the eighth century as a shrine for relics of martyrs and saints from the Roman Catacombs, holds a fragment of St. John the Baptist’s skull. The gothic reliquary was extensively restored and cleaned over the last months and newly presented in the side chapel of the church for the occasion of this feast day. The Mass was held in English together with members of a small English-speaking community composed of Australian, American and Irish priests and seminarians and was also attended by other English speakers in Rome.

Here is the text of Cardinal Pell’s homily.

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John the Baptist, the son of the priest Zachary and Elizabeth, cousin of Our Lady, was born six months before Jesus. Luke’s Gospel tells us Gabriel the Archangel appeared to Zachary in the temple announcing that Elizabeth would conceive a son and telling him to give his promised son the name of John, which means “Yahweh is gracious”. He would lead many of the sons of Israel to their Lord and would walk in the power and spirit of Elijah. In his canticle called the “Benedictus,” Zachary sings of his son as “prophet of the Most High”. According to tradition John was born in the town of Ain Karim, about 3.5 miles west of Jerusalem. Luke also relates that John spent his youth in the desert.

John appeared in the region of the Jordan as an ascetic and a preacher of penance. His principal task was to announce the arrival of Jesus Christ as Messiah. He, in fact, baptized Jesus. John appeared clothed in camel’s hair, the traditional garb of the prophets, just as Elijah had.

John came as a “voice crying in the dessert” echoing Isaiah. According to the Fourth Gospel the Baptist categorically denied that he was Elijah or the expected Prophet or the Messiah. But he was indeed the last of the Old Testament prophets.

The message of John’s sermons is rather forbidding and severe (Mt 3.7-12; Mk 1.7-8; Lk 3.7-18): “the axe is laid to the root of the trees”. But Luke insists also on the positive and humane aspects of the Baptist’s message. No profession is denied salvation; all are called primarily to practice justice and charity toward their fellow man.

In John’s Gospel the Baptist describes himself as the friend of the Bridegroom who must decrease as Christ must increase; he proclaims Jesus as the Lamb of God.

John gathered around him a group of disciples who remained faithful to him until his death, even the apostles Andrew and John had been his disciples before joining Christ. The Synoptic Gospels and John record disputes between the disciples of the Baptist and those of Christ over fasting and baptism. The Baptist, however, counseled his disciples to follow Jesus.

The Evangelists further describe how “all the country of Judea went out to him, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem”. Josephus the ancient Jewish historian as well as the Evangelists, records the reaction of Herod Antipas, who, fearing an uprising, had the Baptist imprisoned. John had fearlessly denounced Herod’s sinful marriage with Herodias, his brother’s wife. In turn, Herodias instigated her daughter Salome to request John’s death; to please her Herod had John beheaded, although he had regarded him as a religious and just man. While in prison, John had sent a delegation of his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the Messiah. According to some critics, John had found it difficult to accept a meek and merciful Messiah rather than an Elijah-like figure. In answer, Jesus pointed to his fulfillment of the Old Testament messianic expectation, especially as described by Isaiah. He then took the occasion to eulogize John as “a prophet, yes, more than a prophet. … Among those born of women there has not arisen one greater than John the Baptist”.

The Dead Sea scrolls were discovered by a shepherd boy in 1947. They had belonged to the Qumran Community, probably a Jewish group called the Essenes.

Many scholars believe that the Qumran community of the Judean desert had an important influence on the Baptist. Some claim that John belonged to the community for a while and I am inclined to believe this as well.

These similarities are striking, e.g. that of the messianic expectation of the Judean desert. The Qumran community was a priestly one; John, too, came from a priestly family, who manifested intense messianic hopes. Both John and the sectarians of Qumran found inspiration in the text of Is 40.3 about a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. John preached a baptism of repentance, and while the Qumran community practiced ritual ablutions, there is no indication that they attached any moral significance to these. While the Qumran ritual was frequently repeated, that of John was apparently administered only once. John announced a second baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire, that is, an eschatological judgment; the Qumran ascetics, too, preached a second baptism that would be the work of the Spirit of God and would be eschatological.

A striking difference, however, between John the Baptist and the Qumran community is the universality present in John’s preaching in contrast to the closer character of the Qumran group, which regarded all outsiders as “sons of darkness”.

John’s call to repentance and therefore forgiveness is as necessary now as it was 2,000 years ago, but until the discovery of the scrolls in the Qumran monastery the plausibility of the young John living for years in the wilderness or desert was always open to challenge. Modern studies have filled out the background of this exotic figure. All believers are in debt to those scholars.


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