In the Martyrology, we find the following as today’s first entry:
Nativitas sancti Joannis Baptistae, Praecursoris Domini, ac sanctorum Zachariae et Elisabeth filii, qui Spiritu Sancto repletus est adhuc in utero matris suae.
The birth of Saint John the Baptist, Forerunner of the Lord and son of Saints Zecharaiah and Elizabeth, who while still in the womb of his mother was filled with the Holy Ghost.
If we pay close attention to Luke’s infancy narrative, we know that at the time of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Elizabeth was already six months pregnant with John; hence, the placement of this feast six months before Christmas.
An ancient sermon attributed to Augustine gives a beautiful interpretation of the dates of the births of Christ and the Baptist. As he reflects on the significance of sacred time, he points to the connection (valid at least in the northern half of the world, the hemispherical context of biblical revelation), between John’s birth in the heat of summer and Christ’s birth in the dead of winter. In the Fourth Gospel (3:30), the Baptist says said of Christ, “He must increase, I must decrease”.
As a backdrop to that statement, remember that John’s preaching was so charismatic, so forceful, and so persuasive that many thought him the Messiah. When Christ asked the Apostles, “Who do people say is the Son of Man,” they responded, “Some say John the Baptist…” (Matthew 16:13,14). Yet John is the first to deflect attention away from himself: “Another greater than me is coming… I am not worthy to loosen his sandal”; “I am the voice crying in the desert, ‘Ready the way of the Lord!'”; “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold him who takes away the sins of the world!”. In the aforementioned pseudo-Augustinian sermon, we find:
“It is necessary for him to grow, but for me to diminish.” The one grew on the Cross, the other was diminished by the sword. Their deaths have spoken of this mystery, let the days do so too. Christ is born, and the days start increasing; John is born, and the days start diminishing. So let man’s honor diminish, God’s honor increase, so that the honor of man may be found in the honor of God.
The original Greek (ἐκεῖνον δεῖ αὐξάνειν, ἐμὲ δὲ ἐλαττοῦσθαι), as often occurs when dealing with English renderings, reveals a profundity of meaning apparent to the ancients but obscured to us uncultured moderns. Where we see the word “must” (“he must increase, but I moreover must decrease”), we discover the underlying Greek word δέω, which in the literal sense denotes “binding”, as Odysseus was bound by his men to his ship. The sense of the word “must” is greatly intensified, almost as if John refers to the irrevocable destines of both himself and of his cousin. Christ “is bound to increase” in power and majesty; his glorification is unstoppable. By the same token, John accepts that he is bound to decrease– to die a martyr’s death without first witnessing the triumph of the Lamb– ἐμὲ δὲ ἐλαττοῦσθαι. This self-denial is the essence of John’s ministry and his example to all men: to point the way to Christ and to let one’s own ego (ἐμὲ!) diminish in favor of the Lord. Given the irrevocable and binding nature of Jesus’ ultimate triumph, it behooves (αὐξάνειν) man not to stand in the way of this triumph by humbling (ἐλαττοῦσθαι) himself before God incarnate.
After the Forerunner’s commemoration, the Martyrology continues with a hefty and most moving citation:
Romae commemoratio sanctorum plurimorum Martyrum, qui a Nerone Imperatore, ut a se incensae Urbis odium averteret, calumniose accusati, diverso mortis genere jussi sunt saevissime interfici. Horum siquidem alii, ferarum tergis contecti, laniatibus canum expositi sunt; alii crucibus affixi; aliique incendio traditi, ut, ubi defecisset dies, in usum nocturni luminis deservirent. Erant hi omnes Apostolorum discipuli, et primitiae Martyrum, quas Romana Ecclesia, fertilis ager Martyrum, ante Apostolorum necem transmisit ad Dominum.
At Rome, the commemoration of the many holy Martyrs, who, having been calumniously accused by the Emperor Nero such as to avoid the City’s anger upon himself, were consigned to die by various types of savage deaths. Some were sewn to the skin of wild beasts and given to dogs who tore them apart; others were crucified; and others were thrown into fire, so that, when the day had ended, they served as fuel for the nocturnal lights. These were all disciples of the Apostles and the first of the Martyrs, which the Roman Church, that fertile field of Martyrs, sent to the Lord before the death of the the Apostles.
This account is no florid hagiography written by Christians with the aim of exaggerating their tribulations; here, the Martyrology has borrowed, almost word for word, from the chronicles of Tacitus (see his Annales 15:44), the illustrious Roman senator and historian, who lived whilst the persecutions took place. This corroboration from such a trustworthy non-Christian source, coupled with the tombs of the martyrs, supplies us with breathtaking proof of the heavy cross borne by the early Church.
How brutal, how terrifying, how unbelievably horrid the experience of that first Christian generation in Rome, when the violent storm of Imperial persecution threatened to snuff the smoldering sparks of the Faith! That the Church in her infancy survived such a perilous deluge of madness is surely a powerful testament not only to the courage of those who passed on the faith and died professing it, but also to the truth of the faith itself. Nobody dies for what they know to be a lie, but one will readily die for the truth; the belief in Jesus Christ, so foreign and so new, brought by the Apostles to the Jews of Rome who were already outsiders, inspired in those who accepted the Gospel a radically firm belief in the Paschal Mystery. These first Christians knew full well the risk of accepting Christ, for it meant even greater ostracization from civil society and possible death; and yet they received the Lord unto the shedding of their blood. They knew Jesus to be “the way, the truth, and the life” and so resolutely followed his path into eternity.
Pope Francis frequently points out that the Christian martyrs of today are more numerous than those of the first years of the Church. While this is statistically true, it cannot diminish the special place of the first martyrs. Christians of today have the blessing of living in a world where Christ has been preached for thousands of years and on every continent; we have seen the Church alive and well in the age of religious liberty. If we consider Christ’s example as far removed from our time and far above our frailty, we still have the example of countless saints and martyrs, right up to our generation, who show us that even human frailty can conquer the temptation to deny the Lord.
The first martyrs of Rome, on the other hand, had no other example than Christ himself; even they were killed before Peter and Paul (ante Apostolorum necem; regrettably, in the modern, revised Roman Calendar, the feast of the Roman Protomartyrs is transferred to 30 June, robbing it of its historical character). They had never witnessed the Church in all her temporal glory spread across the globe, for their Church was one that lived under the shadow of a sword. The unfathomable courage and strength of faith displayed by these nameless saints who had not the benefit of modern Christians should serve as a stern wake-up call to the lukewarm Christians of today.
By all human calculations, the Christian community in Urbe should have been extinguished. Within five days of this mass murder at the hands of Nero, Peter and Paul would endure their final trials (hence 29 June as the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul), leaving the Church of Rome decapitated. Yet, as Tertullian would later write, sanguis martyrum semen Christianorum est— and like the seed which goes into the ground and dies, the from the blood of the martyrs grew a Church ever more abundant, ever more fruitful.
In thanks to God for the testimony of John the Baptist and the Roman Protomartyrs, the Church takes up the words of Zechariah, who when graced with the birth of a son in his old age, declared:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of His people:
And hath raised up a horn of salvation to us, in the house of David his servant:
As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets, who are from the beginning:
Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us:
To perform mercy to our fathers, and to remember his holy testament,
The oath, which he swore to Abraham our father, that he would grant to us,
That being delivered from the hand of our enemies, we may serve him without fear,
In holiness and justice before him, all our days.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways:
To give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto the remission of their sins:
Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on high hath visited us:
To enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace.