The Church has organized the liturgy—seasons, feasts, readings, prayers, sacramental rites, et cetera—in a way to instruct the faithful, helping them to enter more deeply into the mysteries of the faith present within the sacraments. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the liturgy is “the privileged place for catechizing the People of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1074). A liturgy professor of mine would often spend the first fifteen minutes (at least) of class discussing the liturgical celebration of the day—the saint or event commemorated, the prayers and readings—or the upcoming Sunday’s prayers and readings. This professor would even point out to us how the names and titles of certain celebrations are a source of instruction for the People of God.
Yesterday, August 29, we celebrated the Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist. The deaths of all martyrs can be spoken of as a “passion,” but there are only two passions which are given that title in the Church’s liturgical calendar—John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Why?
We can first consider that these deaths are the only passions recorded in the Gospel accounts. Also, we should take note of how the death of John the Baptist prefigures the death of Christ. As John led others to follow Jesus and proclaimed the truth without fear—even to a high-ranking official—he was arrested and put in prison. Jesus was arrested on account of the Gospel message he taught and the works he performed, which challenged and called out the religious leaders of the time. Others sought to kill John, and King Herod conceded to this death despite his distress. The religious leaders sought the death of Jesus, and Pontius Pilate conceded to this death despite finding the man innocent.
In whole, the life of John the Baptist—his birth, ministry, and death—is so closely connected to the life of Christ and mysteries of the faith that we commemorate his death as a passion. We recognize his death as a model of the summit of Christian witness: participating in the passion of Christ and thus in the work of salvation. In the memorial of John the Baptist’s passion, we hear prayers and readings which point us to this truth. This can be seen if we reflect upon the collect (opening prayer) of this feast: “O God, who willed that Saint John the Baptist should go ahead of your Son both in his birth and in his death, grant that, as he died a martyr for truth and justice,
we, too, may fight hard for the confession of what you teach.”
The liturgy teaches us the faith, and in being taught by the liturgy, we enter more deeply into the great mystery that guides our lives as Christians. Do not let the feasts we celebrate and the prayers and readings we pray pass you by; draw truth and life from them. “It is this mystery of Christ [the Paschal Mystery and work of salvation] that the Church proclaims and celebrates in her liturgy so that the faithful may live from it and bear witness to it in the world” (CCC 1068).