One of my seminary professors began each class by reading verses 9-13 from St. John’s Gospel:
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
Shortly thereafter, in John 1:29, the powerful figure of John the Baptist appears, points to Jesus, and proclaims: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” And suddenly, John disappears from the Gospel.
The reason? Jesus was now in the “public square.” Having begun His public ministry, Jesus approached Andrew and Philip and Peter and said to them: “Follow me.” (John 1:43) And before long, many others followed Him and witnessed His many teachings and miracles. But if we read John’s Gospel to its conclusion, we’ll find that Jesus is not only ridiculed, spat upon, and scourged; but that He is condemned to death in a manner reserved for violent criminals.
For what, I ask? For speaking the truth about God and love and the ways in which we should live our lives right out there—in the public square. If we remember, He told us: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1) With a profound sense of the disciples’ angst, He reassures their faith while prophesying about the events of the Cross: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:18-19)
Today, it seems that we have two options: (1) We might speak boldly about Jesus in the public square and participate in the Christ-centered transformation of our world. Or, (2) That those of us who are faithful to the Gospel continue our collective “silence” and thereby allow our so-called “diverse” and “multicultural” and “non-religious” culture to consume us? In the event that we choose this second option, do we not continue our Lord’s crucifixion right out in the open, in the public square?
Prior to his death in 2015, the courageous Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, lamented the rapid demise of godly values in our increasingly secularized society, and spoke these words regarding what might happen when we allow the name and works of Jesus to be exterminated from our lived vocabulary:
I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the Church. Those who gather at His cross and by His empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about Him and persecute or harass His followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up bringing the changes to the old human story of sin and oppression. There is nothing progressive about sin, even when it is promoted as enlightened.
In the Acts of the Apostles, in their public square, Jesus’ followers boldly preached His resurrection and salvation. In our public square, can we say the same?