LONG BEACH, CA (Catholic Online) - Our contemporary culture has become one of silliness and superficiality. We tend to live on the surface of life and allow ourselves to be swept away by the winds of every fashion and trend, opinion and whim. We live unreflective, shallow lives.
If you need proof, listen to the conversations of people or look at their Facebook postings. So much of it is senseless, stupid and inane.
Consider the entertainments that captivate the public's interest from Lady Gaga (although her light is fading) and the Kardashians to Glee, Dancing with the Stars and the spate of vampire themed movies and shows.
Then there's MTV which had to reinvent itself because the 24 hour music video format long ago ran its course. Still dedicated to sleaze, MTV's menu of programming, which includes popular shows like "Snooki" and "Jersey Shore," makes MTV deserving of the nickname, "EMPTY-V" ("empty viewing").
I could give you many more examples from the world of sports, fashion, advertising, music, etc., that underscore the vapidity and moral decadence of our modern culture but I will spare you.
As a culture we have become the polar opposites of the great St. John the Baptist who was anything but a "reed swayed by the wind." He was not a man carried away by boorish entertainments like the shallow, little man, Herod Antipas, who gave the order for his execution. Hence, all these centuries later the Baptist still entertains us (in the original sense of the Latin inter- + tenire, meaning to hold our attention) and the depthless Herod completely bores us.
As the Christmas Season of the new liturgical year rapidly approaches its grand finale with the Baptism of the Lord this coming Sunday, the blessed figure of Christ's precursor once again enters the spotlight in today's Gospel.
John the Baptist is not by any means a peripheral figure in the history of salvation. In the "ranking" of the saints in the Church's litanies, for example, he is always near the top.
Over the centuries we see St. John the Baptist vying with St. Joseph for the "spot" in the list of Saints which comes after Our Lady and the Angels. This, of course, is how we view it through the lens of our earthbound existence. In heaven, needless to say, there is no jockeying for positions of honor or prestige.
Fact is among all the holy men and women of history there are few greater than St. John the Baptist. Why is this so?
First, we have the testimony of Jesus Himself who said: "I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist ... (St. Matthew 11:11).
Second, there are the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his unlikely birth. He came into this world through the marital embrace of his aged parents, Zachary and Elizabeth.
Elizabeth had been unable to conceive throughout her long married life until shortly after the Angel had told her dumbstruck husband that their prayer had been heard. Elizabeth would conceive and bear him a son! The Angel even told the Zachary the name he was to give to this child.
There is an important observation to be made here: the angel told Zachary that "their prayer had been heard." What prayer? Their ceaseless prayer to God that He would bless their marriage with children. How completely alien to the mindset of our antecedents in the faith is our modern, first world attitude toward marriage and the openness to life.
In the Bible and in Christian influenced societies children are considered a great blessing. In the society in which we live, children are considered a burden or even worse, a curse.
In 2008 when the now twice-elected president Barack Obama was candidate Obama he made a very telling, off-teleprompter remark. At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, when addressing the issue of sex education and related matters, he said:
"I've got two daughters, 9 years old and 6 years old. I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby."
At the time, his calculating handlers and delirious supporters tried to argue that this was an off-the-cuff remark and that Obama did not really mean it quite that way. But he did. When he went off script, the unvarnished Barack Obama and what he really thinks, was revealed.
He said he will teach his daughters "values and morals." By that he meant to say he will tell them: be sure to use contraception. And, if it doesn't work (which is often the case), kill the baby. This is the moral framework out of which President Obama operates and, sadly, it is a moral framework which obviously resonates with the millions of Americans who voted for him not just once, but twice.
Our "celebrity president" who regularly appears on popular programs like The View and late night talk shows is a sort of icon of our insipid and morally bereft society. While still millions of Americans firmly reject the extremist views of our nation's chief executive, in so many ways President Obama serves as a mirror reflecting all too clearly the moribund state of the modern American body politic.
Boston College philosopher and convert, Dr. Peter Kreeft, sizes up both the world view of our president as well as that of perhaps half of our nation's population, in an unrelated comment he made about modernists. Here's what he wrote:
"The essence of modernity is the death of the spiritual. The modernist is someone who is more concerned about air pollution than soul pollution. A modernist is someone who wants clean air so he can breathe dirty words. A modernist cares about big things, like whales, more than little things, like fetuses; big things like governments, more than little things like families and neighborhoods; big things like states, which last hundreds of years, more than little things like souls, which last forever" (C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium: Six Essays on The Abolition of Man).
This is the bad news that we did not want to hear from the doctor (of Philosophy!) but which we so desperately needed to hear. It doesn't look good. The disease is extremely serious and potentially fatal but it doesn't have to be. As a culture we are in the throes of spiritual death but it is still possible that we could be brought back to life. The prognosis is poor but there is hope. The diagnosis is dire, but there is a cure.
And where shall we find the cure? It is nearer to you than your local pharmacy or medical center. The cure is found in the "prescription" given to us by a man who had no degrees, who lived like a recluse in the desert and wore clothes made out of animal skins (PETA people would not like him at all!). It will be hard to swallow but it will heal us if we take the medicine.
What is this potent prescription? It is contained in the words of St. John the Baptist at the end of today's Gospel: "He must increase; I must decrease."
As a nation and as individuals we have dethroned Jesus from our hearts. Even though the numbers of the so-called "nones" (people who are not affiliated with any religion) are growing steadily, the vast majority of Americans still consider themselves in some sense believers. But does their belief really translate into their everyday existence? For too many the answer is clearly no.
Christ is the saving remedy. He must increase, I must decrease. He must become truly the center of my life and I must surrender more and more of myself to Him. This means that I must be converted, I must repent, I must undergo what the Bible calls metanoia, a Greek word that literally means, change of mind.
"The point is not that conversion can be reduced to a mental act, but that a change of perspective is essential to the redirection of one's life. The interior attitude thus leads to exterior actions such as fasting and various forms of self-discipline and mortification" (Scott Hahn, General Editor: Catholic Bible Dictionary, p. 764).
Another way of saying it is that I need to die to myself, to my whims, to my sinful habits, to my self-centeredness, to my childish attachments. I need to reorient my life and eliminate from it everything that keeps Jesus at arm's length.
St. Paul wrote: "When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11).
St. Teresa of Avila once said, "The world is burning and there is no time for unimportant things."
St. Josemaria Escrivá wrote in his spiritual classic, The Way, "These world crises are crises of saints" (301).
By this St. Josemaria means that the answer to not only America's problems but to problems of the whole world is personal sanctity. Once again, I need to be converted! I need to become a saint! This is what will transform the culture and Christianize it anew if you and I, with the grace of God, begin again the struggle of becoming saints.
"There are many souls all around us," wrote St. Josemaria, "and we have no right to be an obstacle to their eternal happiness. We have the obligation of leading a fully Christian life, of becoming saints, of not betraying God and all those who expect a Christian to be an example and a source of truth (Christ is Passing By, 124)."
While the New Year is still somewhat new, let us perseveringly ask God the Holy Trinity through the intercession of our Holy Mother Mary, Help of Christians, and St. John the Baptist, the "best man" of the Bridegroom, that you and I may be truly converted in this Year of Faith.
Fr. G. Peter Irving III is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is pastor of Holy Innocents Church, Long Beach, California.
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