“Would He drive away the Herodian princes as He had scattered the money-changers?”
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Fr Coleridge’s book on St John the Baptist takes us up to the close of the saint’s ministry, but not his life. Nonetheless, Coleridge’s entry for St John’s imprisonment is a fitting reflection for the feast of his passion.
The Ministry of St John the Baptist
Fr Henry James Coleridge
Burns and Oates, London
The people made ready for Our Lord
The imprisonment of St. John at this time may also be considered as of much importance in showing the character of the kingdom which our Lord came to establish.
The Providence of His Father was now declaring Him, in St. Paul’s words, ‘to be the Son of God in power,’ by means of His marvellous miracles, and it was quite possible that, as at a later date, after the feeding of the five thousand, the people thought to come and take Him and make Him a King by force, so there may now have been enthusiastic hearts in the ever-increasing circle of those who were, more or less, His disciples, who may have indulged in the dream that the miraculous powers which He wielded were to be turned to the purposes of a merely human policy, that He would interfere in public affairs and set Himself on the throne of David.
His Birth had, indeed, been marked by the permission on the part of God’s providence of the cruel massacre of the Innocents, just after He had received the homage of the Eastern sages as the King of the Jews.
No legion of angels had been sent to save those infant victims from the death which fell upon them because His shadow had but passed among them, and the Holy Family itself had been ordered to seek its safety in flight and exile, not by any preternatural means of defence.
But this was past and forgotten, and now one after another the great manifestations of His power and dignity on which we have been dwelling had succeeded each other.
Would our Lord use the power which He now displayed for any purposes but those of beneficence? He Who had cleansed the Temple unassisted, would He drive away the Roman armies and the mercenaries of the Herodian princes, as He had scattered the sellers and the money-changers in the sanctuary? Was the new kingdom to become a political and material power?
The character of Christ’s Kingdom shown
Such questions were to be answered by-and-by by our Lord Himself, in His words to Pilate, when He said that He was a King, but that His kingdom was not of this world, otherwise His servants would have fought that He might not be delivered to the Jews.
But now, at the outset of His Ministry, they were implicitly answered by the imprisonment of St. John Baptist.
The time was to come when St. Peter was to be saved from prison by an angel, but no angel was to be sent to loosen the chains of the blessed Forerunner of our Lord.
The new religious movement, as it would be called in our time, was not to interfere with the powers already constituted in Palestine, even though they were alien in origin from the chosen people and the royal family of David.
St. John was to be left to suffer imprisonment first and to be murdered afterwards, for he was in this also to go before our Lord’s face, Who was Himself to be imprisoned against all law and justice for the sake of the truth, and to be put to an ignominious death by a ruler who could have no power against Him except it had been given him from above.
And in this St. John was: not only to have the blessed privilege of resembling his Lord and Master, but also that of silently preaching the doctrine of the Cross, before the time came for that doctrine to be openly declared by our Lord Himself.
Meanwhile, until the time came for his martyrdom, he was restored, as it were, to his solitude, his long hours of silence, loneliness, prayer, and contemplation, and, in close union with God, in rejoicing thankfulness over the work he had accomplished, and the tidings which came to him at long intervals, perhaps, of the progress of Him to Whose manifestation he was devoted, he waited, as so many of the saints after him have waited, in obscurity and external suffering, the moment of his release by the sword of the executioner.
Activity, the fruit of persecution
Our Lord’s outburst, if we may use such words, of greater activity, upon the news of the imprisonment of St. John, has other aspects than that of the development of a religious movement when some restraining cause had been taken away.
The seizure of St. John by Herod marked the end of the ministry of the Baptist, and it was now, therefore, time to reap the harvest which he had sown. It was time to test the hearts of the people by a further trial, and to give those who had been truly faithful to the teaching of penitence the opportunity of coming to the light for which that teaching had made them ready by removing the obstacle of their attachment to sin.
So it might have been in any case, if the ministry of the Baptist had been Providentially brought to an end in any manner or at any time.
But it is characteristic of the kingdom of God which our Lord came to found that it derives strength from persecution, and fresh vigour and courage from the blows which strike down its most prominent champions.
It rises upon its oppressors with a power of resistance and an indomitable tenacity faintly figured in the characteristic aggressiveness of Rome of which the poet sang.
And so the imprisonment of St. John is but one of a thousand similar acts of persecution of which the annals of the Church are full, which have been the signal for a greater activity and a more widespread devotion to good works on the part of her children than before.
Human counsellors would have advised our Lord to retire before an unscrupulous prince, determined to stamp out any religious activity which might cast a fresh light upon the enormous public wickedness by which his daily life was stained, and to whom bloodshed was no more a matter of hesitation than to his father Herod the Great.
Instead of this, it was in the territory of this same Herod, and in the neighbourhood of his splendid residence at Tiberias, that our Lord was now to begin a new course of Evangelical preaching; illustrated by the most stupendous miracles, with which the whole country was soon to ring, and before the splendour of which the great fame even of St. John Baptist was to fade from the minds of men.
From Fr Henry James Coleridge, The Ministry of St John the Baptist, published 1882, Burns and Oates, London, 362-4
Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ
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The Church in the Last Days – Part II: How will we know her?
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Our Lady, the Rosary and the Holy Souls
The Cleansing of the Temple – How Our Lord will come and purge our souls
The price of delay in relieving the souls in Purgatory
Our Lord’s expectation of his Nativity – Part I
Our Lord’s expectation of his Nativity – Part II
The Presentation of Christ – Candlemas, Passover and the buying-back of the firstborn
Persecution – What are its effects?
St Joseph – do the Gospels tell us more about him than we realise?
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