This last week of August, the Catholic Church honors several saints of the early Church — St. John the Baptist and St. Augustine of Hippo — but what do ancient saints have to teach us today in our post-modern world?
St. John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus Christ (as well as his cousin) and the last of the Old Testament prophets. Like Christ Himself, John the Baptist and his special role in salvation history was announced to one of his parents before he was conceived in the womb. He was prepared for his role as the forerunner of the Messiah by a life of prayer and fasting in the wilderness of Judea, and then began his ministry of calling the People of God (the Israelites) to repentance. John had the privilege of baptizing Jesus, the author of baptism, thus sanctifying the waters of the earth so that they could be the means by which we, the disciples of Jesus, could be washed of our sins and enter into the life of grace.
But during this week, the Church honors St. John the Baptist especially in his “Passion,” his suffering of death at the hands of King Herod. John is honored as a martyr, and yet, he did not explicitly die for the name of Jesus Christ. So how is he a martyr? John died for the Truth, and Jesus Christ tells us in the Gospel that He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In dying for the truth, John the Baptist, in actual fact, died for Christ. But for which truth did he die? For the truth that marriage, given to us by Almighty God in the creation of the human race, is indissoluble. King Herod had unlawfully married Herodias, who was the wife of his brother Philip. This was not a situation of the Hebrew “levirate law” — the law that said that if a Jewish man died without having had children, his brother was to marry the widow and “raise up children for his brother” — no, Herod married his brother’s wife while his brother was still very much alive. St. John the Baptist believed that the truth of marriage — God’s vision of marriage — was worth suffering persecution, imprisonment, and even death to uphold. Some things are worth living for, and dying for, and the truth of the meaning and purpose of the gift of human sexuality, and its proper use only within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman, is such a truth. Are we, today, so convinced of the goodness, beauty and purpose of the gift of sexuality, and of the sacrament of marriage, that we are willing to suffer hatred, insults, and yes, even persecution and possibly martyrdom, for this truth — a truth that reflects Christ who is the eternal and unchangeable Truth?
The Church also honors St. Augustine of Hippo this week. Yet Augustine was a man who, for many years, did not uphold the truth about the gift of sexuality — in fact, he was a notorious sinner against it! So why would the Church honor him the day before it honors St. John the Baptist? The reason is that, by the grace and mercy of Almighty God, St. Augustine renounced his sinful ways, and gave his life to the love and service of Jesus Christ. Does that mean that he never suffered temptations of the flesh? No, of course not! It is not that saints do not suffer temptations like you and I do; it is that they overcome those temptations by the grace of God, and they do not allow their weakness and sins to bog them down, to keep them from getting right back up and beginning again to follow the Lord Jesus! St. Augustine kept his mind occupied with the study of Sacred Scripture and the writings of the ancient Fathers who came before him. He studied the truths of our Faith, and defended them against the many false philosophies of his time that attacked those truths.
During his lifetime, our Catholic Faith suffered attacks for multiple quarters: from paganism, Manicheanism, the Donatist heresy, and the Pelagian heresy. His great defense of the Faith against the attacks of paganism is found in his theological masterpiece The City of God, which is one of the great classics of western literature. But it is two of the other heresies that I would like to focus on today: Manicheanism and Pelagianism.
Manicheanism, in a nutshell, was a “dualist” philosophy. It held that there is an absolute separation between the material and spiritual worlds. In fact, they believed that the physical/material world was the creation of an “evil god,” and that all material reality is evil. On the other hand, they believed that the spiritual world was created by a “good god,” and that this spiritual world is good. Due to this dichotomy, Manicheans believed that everything that we do with our bodies is evil — even things like eating food and partaking of sex in marriage. But since material reality was evil, and our spirits were created by the “good god,” we could do all kinds of things that Christianity and Judaism taught were evil, because we are really our spirits, and we are just “trapped inside our bodies.” As a young man, St. Augustine toyed with Manicheanism, but he eventually rejected it as clearly erroneous. He saw that man is actually a “composite being” composed of both body and soul. We are neither simply our body, nor are we simply a spirit that occupies or uses a body — we are made up of body and soul together.
Many people today, in our post-modern western culture, are effectively Manicheans. They believe that we are not a body-soul composite. While they may not believe that there is a “good god” and an “evil god,” many secular people today do not view man (humans) as both body and soul which are inseparably linked together. That is why we have the “gender identity” crisis: if we see ourselves as a spirit, who happens to occupy a body, then it is possible that we “got the wrong kind of body” — that a girl is really a boy, trapped inside a female body, or vice versa. But if we believe that we are truly a composite of body and soul, then our soul must be given specificity as male or female by the kind of body that we possess. If every cell of my body is genetically male, then I am male, whether I emotionally feel like it or not!
The other heresy that St. Augustine fought against was Pelagianism. Essentially, this heresy taught that we can save ourselves. Now, there were many degrees of Pelagianism — some more extreme and others more moderate, but all of them put our efforts toward salvation in the primary place. St. Augustine, following the lead of St. Paul, taught the primacy of divine grace. We humans cannot save ourselves from our sins. We cannot overcome our weaknesses and brokenness simply by our own efforts. This is why, in our modern times, many people can spend many years, and tens of thousands of dollars, going through therapy or rehab (or both, again and again), and never conquer their particular weakness, which can surface as any particular issue, dependency, or addiction. It is only by the Grace of Almighty God, won for us on the Cross by Our Lord Jesus Christ, that we can be saved from our sins, and that we can be truly “forgiven and set free” from our sins and the wounds that they have caused in our lives. This doesn’t mean that we will not have any temptations or struggles, or even that we will be free from ever falling again into sin, but that ultimate forgiveness and healing, and emotional and psychological and spiritual wholeness, can only be found in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Today, let us praise God for the witness of St. John the Baptist in his martyrdom, and for the teaching of St. Augustine, both of which show us the way to true peace and happiness in this life and in the next!