Summer winds down with the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist, who comes in the Spirit of Elijah. The prophetic mission is to disturb the complacencies of the world by the power of the Word, and the Baptizer epitomizes the whole prophetic lineage.
What does it take to witness to truth and love when the world, and our hearts, close against the dawn from on high? Our predicament is mirrored in Elijah’s Israel. The people of God fell into an extremity of self-seeking, superstition, magical thinking, practical atheism, predation by the strong on the weak (in commerce, politics, worship).
Then, “like a fire there appeared the prophet Elijah, whose words were as a flaming furnace.” (Sir 48:1) This was not a happy mission. Think of the father and son in the ruined world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Xenophon with the Greek mercenaries fighting their way through Persian territory to reach the Black Sea. “I have grown old surrounded by my foes,” David sings. If you bear witness to the reality of divine truth and love, you will be reviled. If you are not reviled, you aren’t doing it right.
The world is dark; our own hearts are dark. We have but one task: let the Light penetrate us more deeply, and show that the Light is flowing down in starry cataracts. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Mt 3:11) The fire of true and divine love. This love never ceases to bleed for the powerless, for the nameless victims of abortion and euthanasia, for the Iraqi Christians and Yazidis and females and others brutalized by the terrorist state of ISIS, for James Foley and those who lose their lives to report the truth, for all the poor being ground down by daily abjection.
Christian witness is not bourgeois comfort. John fearlessly tells the powerful what the truth of marriage is. He gets beheaded. But I promise you, as we decline and fall, bearing witness to that limitless love that Jesus wishes to give, the fire of the Spirit will burn more intensely: “O Elijah, enveloped in the whirlwind!” The falling is a rising.