King Leonidas of Sparta

Homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist June 24, 2018

Recently I was revisiting the story of the battle at Thermopylae, where, as the Greek Historian Herodotus tells us, 300 Spartans (and several other Greeks) held off a huge Persian army for far longer than they should have been able to.

The story is told today, as it was at the time of Herodotus, as a story about the incredible resilience of the patriot who, for love of country and family and freedom is capable of great sacrifice. The story is also very much about the Spartans, who were a warrior people. They trained their boys from a very young age to be nothing else but soldiers. Their society was entirely dedicated to warfare, yes, but in their eyes it was more than just that. It was a society dedicated to the perfection of the human will over the weakness of human flesh. The saying in Greece was that Athens and Thebes built statues; Sparta built men.

As I considered the story of the Spartans and their valor at Thermopylae, I found myself in a kind of awe for their people. However, I could not ignore the fact that these were a brutal people. They were not a Christian people. They did not know the true God. And if they had, they would certainly have rejected him as the Athenians did when St. Paul came and spoke to them.

I bring this up because we celebrate today the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Who is illustrative of the kind of heroes we celebrate as opposed to the heroes of Sparta. Our story is different from that of the Spartans and from many of the other peoples at the time. When one looks at the creation stories of the pagans, creation often occurs thanks to some battle. A hero arises as with the Babylonian Marduk who kills the great dragon Tiamat. The dragon’s body become the heavens and the earth or in some other stories the slain dragon’s blood becomes the sea while the body becomes the land.

In our story of Genesis, however, there are no gods, but only the one true God who, out of a sheer act of generosity, creates all that is and sustains it. There is no hero. In fact, the first man, Adam, fails miserably. He fails to protect the woman against the dragon, the serpent. The dragon tricks Eve. And when asked by God about his transgression, Adam blames God for putting that woman Eve with him. This is an inauspicious start to our tale, but it is consistent.

An inauspicious start indeed

Noah, Moses, David… each of them laudatory figures in our pantheon of heroes… they all failed and lost their way at some point. So what sort of heroes ought we admire if these ones failed?  Today’s readings tell us.

The first reading says that the hero seeks not glory as the Spartans did but rather God himself, “yet my reward is with the Lord,” writes Isaiah, “my recompense is with my God.” It is not plunder or fame or honor our heroes seek. It is life with the Lord. St. Luke relates in his Acts of the Apostles how David first found favor with God; he was “a man after my own heart.”

In the Gospel reading we are given the origin story of our hero, St. John the Baptist. So important is St. John to the Church that we celebrate his birthday. Only two other birthdays are celebrated by the Church, Our Lord’s and Mary’s. The events related in the Gospel today were so shocking at the time that those who heard Zechariah muttered amongst themselves that this child would do great things, and so he did. But his greatness did not come from battles but from being constantly preoccupied by the heart of the Lord. He did not clothe himself in armor and shield and spear. St. John covered his body in ragged hides and ate locusts. This is our hero.

In the first reading we find this:

Hear me, O coastlands, listen, O distant people. The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me. You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.

This reading was chosen by the Church for today because it is a kind of foreshadowing of St. John who was chosen in his mother’s womb to proclaim the joy of the Gospel. He leapt with joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. St. John was used as a polished arrow as his words of truth struck Herod in the heart and enraged Herod’s wife Herodias.

But while these words refer to St. John, it is also true that they are directed to each of us.

We all have many anxieties. It is natural. In the midst of them, we too might be tempted to think like the Spartans that some self-discipline will win us the day. All will be well if only we find the right schedule or structure or disciplinary method or curriculum or friend or distraction or whatever it might be. We are tempted to think that we can fix this thing called life… but that is the way of the pagan. The reason that Noah, and Moses and David faltered was because at some point they started to define heroism by the stars of Sparta instead of by those of Jerusalem and Zion.

What makes the Christian hero is not will power. It is surrender to God almighty. We, each of us, young and old, we are all, as Isaiah says today, “made glorious in the sight of the Lord.” According to the prophet, we are the weapon through which God shows his glory. We are all immortals. We are all heroes to the degree to which we seek the heart and mind of God and surrender to His desire for us.

Our young people want so much to be strong and independent and in control of their lives. The best education for them, according to St. John Paul II, is to learn detachment from things and to learn the value of people over property so that there is space for them to encounter God. We parents have many worries and responsibilities, and we want so much to be strong and capable and in control of our families. The best thing for us is to remember that we must trust in the Father and in the Mother he gave us, for they love us and our children far more than we can.

So my prayer for us all is that as we come to receive Our Savior, we remember that the Spartans are dead and gone but the saints live on. They join us here today in our celebration. For the images here in the apse of our church are not just for decoration but to communicate the truth of heaven’s solidarity with us. Theses saints stand here with the angels calling us to remember that we must be heroes not in the manner of the Spartans but like St. John the Baptist who said that he must decrease so that Christ might increase.

These heroes bear not weapons of war but the tools of truth-telling or the weapons used in their own deaths. St. Paul’s sword is not for battle but to remind us how he died. St. Andrew’s cross reminds us of how he was tortured and killed. These are our heroes. And they remind us to be like unto them. Not seekers of suffering, but willing servants of the God of creation.

I pray that we remember St. John the Baptist in particular who in heroic fashion won his prize by being a man after the heart of God in all things. He surrendered to the Father. He submitted to the Son, and he listened to the Spirit that spoke through him. May we all do the same.