Dear brothers and sisters,
The account of the death of St. John the Baptist, which Matthew presents in the 14th chapter of his Gospel cannot be fully understood except in the context of the last lines of the previous chapter, where he mentions the fact that Jesus came to “his native place”, Nazareth, where people were astonished at his wisdom, yet scandalised at other things and how he was rejected there.
That is why Nazarenes lived two counter-values in those days which was the fruit and consequence of cultural prejudice that came from persecution and rejection.
Jesus was persecuted and rejected. This was Nazareth, but that is the case today, in the whole world. Actually, this unpleasant event from Nazareth extends beyond the borders of this little town and becomes the event that the whole world is interested in.
What was the reason for the scandal in Nazareth?
The Nazarenes understood the wisdom that Jesus displayed in the synagogue: “Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds?” (Mt 13,54). However, they were not able to accept that this wise man was the son of a carpenter. Or, to rephrase it, they were scandalized because they could not believe and accept that a carpenter’s son was “the Son of God”.
John the Baptist was also persecuted and rejected. That is why he is Christ’s herald in it all, from birth to violent death.
John was persecuted and rejected because he was the herald of the Kingdom of God and the witness of the truth; this was the only crime for which he gave his life, even though everyone around him, including Herod Antipas recognised him as a prophet.
You, dear youth, listening to me, you can see that these two cases, first of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, are the tip of the iceberg in the whole situation of injustice, typical of human history, both past and present.
Also, the truth is not often something that people like. Herod did not like it either in the case of John. In his time, Jesus, who is the Truth that became Man, was not pleasing to his own people of Nazareth either, not to his family who thought he had lost his mind, not to those pharisees or those who served in the temple. They all considered him to be a religious revolutionary who they needed to stay away from. Even simple common people, who followed Jesus and accepted him as a prophet, when they tried to identify his personality, they referred to the past, thinking he a was reincarnation of some previous prophet – Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah…
In short, in the narrow comparison of Jesus’ destiny and the one of John the Baptist, there are at least two aspects that you, dear youth, are very sensitive about – a sense of justice and a thirst for the truth. Justice and truth, for the world of the youth, your world, are two realities that one does not talk about.
In both cases, of John and of Christ, the innocent are persecuted and rejected as those who are to be blamed, while the true malfeasant, is not just excluded from punishment but he is entitled to bring a verdict against the innocent ones who are punished. Indeed, the accounts are not straightforward there and you have every right to be scandalised, while you ask yourself in spiritual rebellion: Where is the truth? Where is the law? Even, where is God?
I will answer you by asking you: Where is man? If I say to you that God, the true God exists; He is constantly present in human history: He, in the most indelible way has given meaning to all things, and the law, if it is just, has God as its origin. But, where is man? For indeed, we have so many signs of God’s love, but it is up to us to recognise that presence. Are we capable of taking the role of one of those who would reveal God’s presence in the world? Jesus was historically present among His own, yet he was not recognised and He was rejected. Today, it is we who are His own, but do we know how to recognise Him, accept Him and be those who reveal Him in this world?
This is why the witnessing of each one of us is important, also on the part of the youth. Moreover, testimonies of the youth would certainly contribute to the world today in overcoming numerous situations of injustice and many cover-ups of the truth that we daily witness. Probably this is what Pope Francis is saying in reference to you when he invites you in his Letter to “witnessing”.
Indeed, Jesus from Nazareth struck his contemporaries and also strikes the entire world now. But, who actually is Jesus? The question is applicable today as much as it was in His time. How many different opinions there are about Him! But, if you notice, all those opinions, even of those who lived in His time and those today are summed up in the fact that it is not easy to accept Jesus for what He truly is. It is a great difficulty for the culture of any time to accept Jesus in His Messianic identity, in His Divine Sonship.
In reality, the problem is not in Jesus, it is in us. Therefore, on the way to understanding Jesus, we need to surrender to His guidance. It is not we who should be questioning Him, rather we should allow Jesus to question us, as when He said to Mary of Magdala on Easter morning: "Woman, why are you crying?" Jesus bows down over the humanity of the one who seeks, to take part in his problem and to resolve it from within. For those types of problems are not resolved with intellectual knowledge, made up of prepared answers, that are the fruit of many books.
Hence, let us allow Jesus to ask us. But He would probably refer us to one other question: Who am I for you? Meaning, how much room do I have in your life? What do I mean to you?
Here, Jesus does not need any other opinion, but He needs your heart. Your heart can become “God’s cradle” if you allow Jesus to live in you, if you allow Him to enter your heart as present life, not as life of the past. Jesus wants to live in you so your life would be eternally alive!
Who am I for you? This “for you” means that Jesus pronounces each one of your names and asks you: “Talk to me about your experience of God, how do you see Him?” So, the answer to the question about Jesus, who He is, is the way of daily life with Him in which the more you live with Him, the more you know Him. There are no other ways. The more Jesus enters into our life, the more we are alive. More of Jesus is more of me and more of us.
The same can be applied to our relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary. With regard to that, I would not suggest you should be praying to Our Lady a lot to receive her protection; that is surely alright. However, true devotion to Mary is trying to obtain something more – it is to receive a grace to accept her in our lives, in the way that she was a disciple and faithful, joyful, free and strong, and this would, doubtlessly lead us all to Jesus.