Today the Catholic Church celebrates The Passion of St. John the Baptist. Note that although the Gospel reading for today is Mark’s account of Herod putting John to death to satisfy his promise to the daughter of Herodias, the feast focuses not on John’s martyrdom, but on his passion.
We spend a lot of time during Lent praying with Jesus’ passion. With John, I think we tend to limit our focus to either his preaching or his dramatic death. But I think there is value in the invitation of this feast to focus our attention on John’s passion, which can be thought of as his prison experience. What was it like for John between the time he was arrested and the point at which he is beheaded?
John wasn’t sitting in some swanky minimum security prison being served three meals a day and getting exercise. He was likely in a dark and dank cell, perhaps chained, being served unappetizing and perhaps even rotten food.
As he sat, day after day and week after week (we are not told how long John was imprisoned), he must have had questions and doubts. In our only Gospel account of his time in prison, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3) suggesting at least some uncertainty.
I can see John sitting there wondering if his mission had been worth dying for. Wondering if he had been abandoned by God. Wondering if it had all been for naught.
Pope Benedict wrote
The task set before the Baptist as he lay in prison was to become blessed by this unquestioning acceptance of God’s obscure will; to reach the point of asking no further for external, visible, unequivocal clarity, but instead, of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of his own life, and thus becoming profoundly blessed. John even in his prison cell had to respond once again and anew in his own call for metanoia or a change of mentality, in order that he might recognize his God in the night in wich all things earthly exist.
Most of us won’t be imprisoned for our preaching of the Gospel. But we do each suffer dark moments and, thus, face the same challenge “of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of [our] own [lives].”
We don’t know if John succeeded in doing so, but I would guess he did. May we do the same.