Sunday, December 16, 2007

Two Messages to Women from John the Baptist

My friend Elizabeth Hopkins

(Third Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 15, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10; Matthew 11: 2-11.)

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

After she heard my homily at the 10:30 Mass last Sunday on how to be a real, godly man like John the Baptist (as opposed to being a ‘manly man’ of the type I encountered at the Patriots-Eagles game on November 25th), my little friend, Elizabeth Hopkins—who is all of 7-years-old—came up to me in the vestibule, gave me a kiss (as she does every week), and then proceeded to ask me when I was going to give a homily like that for the girls!

My first thought was, “Wow, this little girl pays more attention to me than some adults do!”

I said to her, “You know what? Believe it or not, I had that same thought before Mass ended.” (And it’s true; that exact thought had crossed my mind.)

So I took her words as a confirmation that this is what God wanted me to do in my homily this weekend. Psalm 8 indicates that the Lord sometimes speaks to us “out of the mouths of babes”—and I think that was the case for me last Sunday. He spoke to me through little Elizabeth.

Consequently today’s homily will be addressed primarily to the women in the congregation—which, of course, does NOT mean that the men have permission to go to sleep for the next 10 minutes or so. The women listened attentively to your homily last week (apparently even 7-year-old women did!), so you can do the same.

And isn’t it interesting—it was John the Baptist who provided us with a message for the men a week ago, and it’s the very same John the Baptist who appears in our gospel this Sunday, and who has, I believe, an equally important message for the women.

Actually, I would say he has 2 important messages.

In this scene, first of all, Jesus harkens back to something that St. Matthew told us about John last week. Making reference to John’s camel hair outfits (which would have made him, as I said a week ago, a very good candidate for that show, ‘What Not to Wear’), Jesus said to the crowds, “What did you go out [to the desert] to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.”

The implication was that if they were expecting to find “Dapper Dan” in the desert when they went to see John the Baptist, they were in for a big shock!

A little dingy, perhaps; but dapper—never!

John the Baptist, therefore, reminds us that what’s on the inside is much more important than what’s on the outside! Jesus called John “the greatest man ever born of woman,” but obviously his greatness had nothing to do with his physical appearance. It definitely had nothing to do with the clothes he wore.

His greatness came from within; his greatness was rooted in his character and in his holiness.

Certainly both men and women can profit by that insight, but for you women I think it’s extremely important. The fact is, you are pressured every day in this hedonistic culture of ours to look a certain way (and to act a certain way!). You’re pressured much more than we men are. And because there’s no way you can possibly “compete” with the celebrities and fashion models you see in movies and magazines (who have been nipped and tucked—and airbrushed—so that they appear to be physically perfect), you are vulnerable: vulnerable to depression, vulnerable to anorexia and bulimia, vulnerable even to despair.

You suffer. But you know what? So do the men in your lives—and you need to be aware of that! Believe it or not, when you become obsessed with your physical appearance—to the neglect of your character and your spiritual life—the men around you become worse.

In case you didn’t know, when it comes to influencing men, women have power—incredible power! They have the power to bring out the very best in men, and they have the power to bring out the absolute worst in men.

Virtuous women who are like John the Baptist—that is to say, virtuous women whose lives are centered on God and not the things of this world—raise up the men around them morally and spiritually. Women, on the other hand, whose lives are centered on physical appearance and material possessions (a la TV’s Desperate Housewives) pull men down morally and spiritually and bring out the worst in them.

Like it or not, that’s the way it is. That’s reality!

On a personal note, it was not a coincidence that my father went from a man who didn’t go to church when my mom married him, to a man who went to daily Mass for the last 6 months of his life. It wasn’t a coincidence because he lived with a virtuous, godly woman—a virtuous, godly woman who brought out the best in him.

One other important lesson for women needs to be shared today, courtesy of John the Baptist. And the best way to introduce the lesson is with this question: Ladies, have you ever wondered if all your good efforts have been wasted—especially with members of your families? I think many of you have—especially those of you who are mothers of what might be called “difficult” children!

You’ve done your best to be a good example of faith to them (and when you’ve failed, you’ve acknowledged it and sought forgiveness from them and from God); you’ve tried to teach them right from wrong, and the importance of putting God first in their lives, but now they don’t go to Mass anymore, and they live by their own rules. And maybe some of them say they don’t even believe God exists.

If you find yourself in this situation with respect to your children—or anyone else for that matter—think of John the Baptist when he was sitting there, all by himself, in Herod’s prison. And then do what he did.

Remember that John had spent his entire life focused on one thing: Preparing the way for his cousin, Jesus—whom he believed to be the Messiah.

But obviously Jesus hadn’t conducted himself in the way that John had expected him to. Maybe John had expected Jesus to be less the preacher and more the fiery judge; maybe he had expected him to be more of a civil leader like King David of old. We’re not sure what the problem was, but there clearly was a problem in John’s mind.

So there he was, sitting in Herod’s prison, thinking to himself, “Have all my good efforts been wasted? I was convinced that my cousin was the Messiah, and I did everything I could to point other people toward him. I said to them, ‘Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!’ I thought I was doing the right thing. But he’s not exactly what I expected him to be; and now I’m stuck in this prison. Did I make a mistake? Is the Messiah actually someone else—someone who will come after my cousin Jesus?”

John wondered and John questioned—but then he did something. He took action! Through his disciples, he went to Jesus and he said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus responded, in effect, by saying, “Think about it, John, I’m doing all those things that Isaiah said the Messiah would do when he finally came.” (Many of those things, incidentally, are mentioned in today’s first reading—which is why the Church gave us that reading from Isaiah at this Mass.)

So John had his answer: his good efforts had not been wasted! But that’s only part of the story. Even after his disciples came back and told him what Jesus had said, John still had to trust, and he still had to persevere. He had to trust that his work was actually bearing good fruit and helping people to be open to Jesus, and he had to persevere in his own faithfulness to God in the midst of his present suffering—both for his own sake and for the sake of the people he had baptized and preached to. You see, if news had gotten around that John the Baptist had lost his faith in prison, some of his former followers might have lost their faith too.

Look to Jesus; trust; and persevere. When your children stray, ladies, and when your other good efforts in this life seem to fail, remember to do those three things: look to Jesus (in other words, pray!); trust that his grace will continue to touch the lives of those you love and pray for; and persevere in your own good works, and in your personal walk with the Lord. That, I believe, is what John the Baptist would tell you to do—because that’s what he did.

And, incidentally, he’d probably give the same word of advice to the men—who hopefully stayed awake throughout this homily and actually heard it.

Ladies, you have my permission to quiz them about it on the way home today.