c. 29 A.D.
Memorial: Liturgical Color: Red
A desert dwelling, locust eating, weed wearing, celibate ascetic dies for marriage
Saint John Vianney was so opposed to the dances held routinely in his small town of Ars that he dedicated a small chapel in his parish church to St. John the Baptist. At its entrance was painted, perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek, a warning of the evil effects produced by lust and drink: “His head was the price of a dance.” Saint John the Baptist’s head was, indeed, the wage rendered by an older man for the satisfaction of watching a young girl dance at his birthday party. More remotely, however, John’s beheading was not caused by a suggestive dance. He paid with his head for poking the bear. John denounced King Herod Antipas, to his face, for divorcing his lawful wife and taking as his own Herodias, his sister-in-law, the wife of his still living half-brother Philip. (Convoluted family blood lines also made Herodias Herod’s niece.) John the Baptist died a martyr for marriage.
Herod Antipas was a tetrarch, or one of four rulers, who co-governed ancient Palestine as client kings under the oversight of a Roman governor. Herod Antipas learned cruelty at home. His father, Herod the Great, had two of his own sons strangled to death and ordered the slaughter of all the male babies of Bethlehem to ensure that not one would become the future king who three wise men had foretold. Herod Antipas’ imprisonment and execution of John was more aggressive than his restrained interaction, a few years later, with John’s cousin. Jesus had called Herod a “fox” when some pharisees told him that Herod was plotting his death. Pontius Pilate later sent Jesus to Herod for interrogation after Pilate determined that the Jew’s complaints about Jesus fell more under Herod’s jurisdiction than his own. Herod wanted bread and circuses—for Jesus to perform a miracle. Jesus said not a word, and the fox returned Jesus to Pilate for what always happened next.
Herod is to John the Baptist what Pilate is to Jesus. Neither Herod’s nor Pilate’s first choice was to order an execution. But cowardice and fear coalesced until commanding the death of an innocent man was more expedient than braving the ridicule and threats of subordinates. According to Saint Mark, Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man…when he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him” (Mk 6: 20). “He was deeply grieved” (Mk 6: 26) that he had to order John’s death. But he didn’t actually have to order John’s death. If he were truly grieved he could have stood up in the midst of the happy crowd, said “I made a stupid promise which I now regret” and granted Salome (her name is not found in the Bible) some other handsome gift instead of a blood-splattered plate. Herod beheaded a man to save face, to avoid embarrassment, to avoid having to say “I made a mistake.”
The Passion, or Beheading, of Saint John the Baptist is one of the very oldest liturgical feasts on the Church’s calendar. John’s birth may be the oldest feast. Along with the feasts of Holy Week, the original event of John’s death is right there on the surface of Holy Scripture, and so likely was commemorated as soon as the Church started commemorating anything. John the Baptist’s colorful life on the edge of respectability came to an abrupt end due to the weakness of a weak man, Herod, and due to the revenge sought by the troubled conscience of Herodias, who despised John for mentioning the obvious. Saint Jerome writes that Herodias’s rage was not satiated by the grisly head of her tormentor on a platter. She then stabbed the tongue which had indicted her.
Saint John the Baptist, your penitential life ended abruptly when you spoke the truth to power. You did not flinch, vacillate, or equivocate. You were imprisoned and then killed for defending the dignity of marriage. Help us to be as courageous and plain spoken as you.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST was called by God to be the forerunner of His divine Son. In order to preserve his innocence spotless, and to improve the extraordinary graces which he had received, he was directed by the Holy Ghost to lead an austere and contemplative life in the wilderness, in the continual exercises of devout prayer and penance, from his infancy till he was thirty years of age. At this age the faithful minister began to discharge his mission. Clothed with the weeds of penance, be announced to all men the obligation they lay under of washing away their iniquities with the tears of sincere compunction; and proclaimed the Messias, Who was then coming to make His appearance among them. He was received by the people as the true herald of the Most High God, and his voice was, as it were, a trumpet sounding from heaven to summon all men to avert the divine judgments, and to prepare themselves to reap the benefit of Vie mercy that was offered them. The tetrarch Herod Antipas having, in defiance of all laws divine and human, married Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, who was yet living, St. John the Baptist boldly reprehended the tetrarch and his accomplice for so scandalous an incest and adultery, and Herod, urged on by lust and anger, cast the Saint into prison. About a year after St. John had been made a prisoner, Herod gave a splendid entertainment to the nobility of Galilee. Salome, a daughter of Herodias by her lawful husband, pleased Herod by her dancing, insomuch that he promised her to grant whatever she asked. On this, Salome consulted with her mother what to ask. Herodias instructed her daughter to demand the death of John the Baptist, and persuaded the young damsel to make it part of her petition that the head of the prisoner should be forthwith brought to her in a dish. This strange request startled the tyrant himself; he assented, however, and sent a soldier of his guard to behead the Saint in prison, with an order to bring his head in a charger and present it to Salome, who delivered it to her mother. St. Jerome relates that the furious Herodias made it her inhuman pastime to prick the sacred tongue with a bodkin. Thus died the great forerunner of our blessed Saviour, about two years and three months after his entrance upon his public ministry, about a year before the death of our blessed Redeemer.
Reflection.—All the high graces with which St. John was favored sprang from his humility; in this all his other virtues were founded. If we desire to form ourselves upon so great a model, we must, above all things, labor to lay the same deep foundation.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.