Sunday, December 09, 2007

John the Baptist: A Real Man

Gillette Stadium: Where a lot of 'manly men' hang out on Sunday afternoons in the fall.

(Second Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 9, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 3: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Advent 2007]

On the Sunday night after Thanksgiving, for the first time in at least a decade, I went to a New England Patriots football game. And I’m glad I did. This was the game they played against the Philadelphia Eagles, and it was one of the best of the season—in the sense that it was highly competitive. That is to say, it was one of the few times this year that the Patriots didn’t completely annihilate their opponents! In fact, it took a touchdown halfway through the 4th quarter by Lawrence Maroney, and a big interception by Assante Samuel in the end zone with 4 minutes left on the clock to give New England a narrow 31-28 victory.

And even though I’m a Green Bay Packer fan deep down inside, I must tell you that I did cheer for the home team that night. And I’ll cheer for them again . . . as long as they’re not playing the Green Bay Packers (which they might, since both teams do have the potential of reaching the Super Bowl again this year)!

Now when you go to a professional football game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, or at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, or at any other NFL park, what has to strike you is the number of MEN who are there! Oh yes, I know there are lots of female football fans who go to games every week, but the vast majority of people in the stands are clearly MEN. And these are not ordinary men, these are MANLY MEN, who are doing their best to look like MANLY MEN, and who are trying very hard to act like MANLY MEN.

For example, they have an unofficial contest at every game to see who can string together the most four-letter words in one sentence—because everybody knows that swearing is a MANLY thing to do! And, of course, it’s extremely cool when you swear at the fans of the other team, and say colorful things about their mothers and other relatives.

But you can’t do this very effectively unless you have a little brown bottle in your hand—or maybe even one little brown bottle in each hand! After all, only girly-men stay sober for the whole game. By the way, someone needs to tell the fans at Patriots games that when Teddy Bruschi’s name is announced over the loudspeaker, it does NOT mean that it’s time to get another beer! The name is spelled B-r-u-s-c-h-i, not B-r-e-w-s-k-i!

And then, as the ultimate expression of their manhood, it’s imperative that these MANLY men make a MANLY mess when they go to the restroom!

Let me tell you, I have been in lots of locker rooms and stadiums and arenas in my life, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Ever!

You ladies are right to complain!

Welcome to the world of MEN—MANLY MEN—in 21st century America!

And we wonder why we have so many cultural problems these days?

Which brings us to the main man of today’s gospel—John the Baptist—who would probably have enjoyed the Patriots-Eagles game a couple of weeks ago (if someone had explained football to him beforehand), but who definitely would not have been amused by all the extra-curricular activities that went on before, during, and after the game!

He would NOT have been amused because he was, as Jesus said, “the greatest man ever born of woman”! You see, John the Baptist knew what it meant to be a man according to God’s design! Obviously that’s something very different from being a man according to the fashion of the world (which, unfortunately, is the kind of manhood that we see embraced and lived out at Patriots games—and in many other places in our society right now).

First of all, John the Baptist was humble, and he submitted himself to the authority of God—which is one of the marks of a real, godly man! He wasn’t filled with himself; he wasn’t filled with bravado and pride like so many guys at that Patriots game were. As John once said to his disciples, “He [i.e., Jesus] must increase, while I must decrease.”

Please hear that, gentlemen: REAL MEN—REAL, GODLY MEN—LOVE THE LORD FIRST, AND SUBMIT TO HIM AND HIS DIVINE LAW IN A SPIRIT OF HUMILITY. They acknowledge an authority in their lives higher than themselves.

They’re not ashamed of their faith; they’re not ashamed of their love for God, as John the Baptist wasn’t ashamed of his faith and of his love for the Lord! This means, among other things, that real, godly, Catholic men aren’t afraid to pray—out loud—even at Mass!

John the Baptist was also willing to admit his faults, his sins—which is yet another quality of real, godly men! Macho men pretend to be perfect because they’re afraid: they’re afraid that if they admit their failings others will accuse them of being weak. Real, godly men are not afraid to admit their imperfections—even to members of their families—because real, godly men are not afraid of reality! They know—as John the Baptist knew—that acknowledging personal sin is a sign of a man’s integrity and strength, not a sign of weakness.

Real, godly men go to Confession!

Do you remember what John the Baptist said to Jesus when our Lord came to the Jordan to be baptized? He said, “I should be baptized by you!” In other words, “I’m the sinner, Jesus, not you! I’m the one who needs this inner cleansing, not you!”

And yet, Jesus still called John “the greatest man ever born of woman.”

(Believe it or not, being willing to admit his faults was a big part of what made John so great!)

Real, godly men also discipline themselves for the sake of others—like John the Baptist did. We’re told in today’s gospel that John wore clothing made of camel’s hair (he was obviously a candidate for that TV show, 'What NOT to Wear'!), and that he lived on a diet of locusts and wild honey.

Yum, yum.

John the Baptist disciplined himself physically—wearing uncomfortable clothes and eating unappetizing food—for a reason: in order to prepare himself to do God’s work. He disciplined himself, in other words, for the sake of the people he baptized and preached to.

Let me tell you something: at the Patriots game the other night, I did not see too many men disciplining themselves for the sake of anybody. I didn’t see too many guys disciplining their tongues, for example, or denying themselves when it came to drinking beer—in spite of the fact that there were a lot of impressionable children present! They had the opportunity to discipline themselves for the sake of others—for the sake of giving a good example to those young people who had gone to see the game, but they didn’t.

Real, godly men also have a tender side, especially when it comes to repentant sinners—again like John the Baptist. They don’t put on a false, “tough-guy” front! They can be firm, yes, when circumstances require them to be—as John was firm with the Pharisees and Sadducees in this gospel scene. (He was firm with them, incidentally, because he knew they really weren’t sorry for the things they had done. He knew they were just going through the motions, so to speak, by coming to get baptized.)

Real, godly men have genuine compassion for those who are hurting, and for those who sincerely repent for the sins of their past. It says here that people “from the whole region around the Jordan” were going to John to receive his baptism as they confessed their sins. Obviously they did that because they felt welcomed and not condemned. John was a lion when he preached, and a lion when he confronted hard-hearted people like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but he was a merciful lamb when he dealt with sinners who were really sorry for what they had done, and who really wanted to change their lives for the better.

And that was one of the biggest reasons why he was so popular.

So, gentlemen, I ask all of you in conclusion: Which do you want to be (which do you REALLY want to be): a “manly man” who’s cool in the eyes of the world, but a fool in the eyes of God, or a man like John the Baptizer: devout, honest, humble, disciplined, strong, loving and compassionate?

If you really want to be the latter—if you REALLY want to be like John, then you can prove it right now by kneeling in your pew and joining me in this little prayer . . .

And please repeat this prayer after me OUT LOUD! After all, real, godly men aren’t afraid to pray out loud in front of other people, since they’re not ashamed of their faith and of their love for God:

St. John the Baptist, pray for me. You were the greatest man born of woman, so I know you can help me! Pray that I will be a faithful disciple like you. Pray that I will never be afraid to express my love for Jesus Christ. Pray that I will always be strong in my Catholic faith—even when those around me are weak. And when I fail (as I know I will!), pray that I’ll have the humility to admit it, and the good sense to repent. Pray that I’ll learn to love as you loved, and to sacrifice myself for others, as you sacrificed yourself for others. Pray that I’ll be a real man; pray that I’ll be a righteous man; pray that I’ll be the man God wants me to be. Amen.