Revised and reposted for the feast day of St. John the Baptist's martyrdom:
He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life and deserved to be called a bright and shining lamp by that Light itself, which is Christ.
John was baptized in his own blood, though he had been privileged to baptize the Redeemer of the world, to hear the voice of the Father above him, and to see the grace of the Holy Spirit descending upon him.
But to endure temporal agonies for the sake of the truth was not a heavy burden for such men as John; rather it was easily borne and even desirable, for he knew eternal joy would be his reward.
-St. Bede, Divine Office Reading
Honoring a Decapitated Man:
August 29 marks the feast day of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. Not many institutions celebrate the beheading of men. And for many, this celebration carried out by the Catholic Church may seem morbid. Obviously, what Catholics are called to commemorate is not the beheading of a man, per say, but the moral courage which led to it. It is a testimony that there are more important things in life than even life itself. And if the more important things in life such as the sanctity of marriage are compromised, then social decorum and diplomacy must be set aside to make things right. Indeed, there are times when the hardcore truth in all of its rudeness and abrasiveness must be applied; and in public, if necessary.
Recall that St. John the Baptist publicly confronted King Herod, not on national policy, but on the importance of something which escapes many politicians. This rustic prophet of the desert gave voice to the unlawfulness of a marriage that King Herod contracted with his brother’s wife. But as Bishop Fulton Sheen said, this prophet loved Herod too much to let the matter drop. Indeed, he loved his king too much to leave the sin of adultery unprobed and undiagnosed. And he certainly knew that the consequences could very well be life threatening. It was no surprise to St. John the Baptist, it's safe to assume, that Kind Herod and Herodias didn’t like being criticized.
Weakness of a King:
Interestingly, however, the adulterous king was impressed with the outspoken Saint. There was something about St. John that appealed to him. But as one who was attached to his political power, the righteousness of St. John the Baptist was not enough to make Herod a good man. Worse yet, it was not enough to make him repent. But, unlike his father who killed scores of babies in Bethlehem when his throne was threatened by the prophecy of the new born Messiah, "Herod junior" was ambivalent; he didn’t want to act in haste like his father did. Rather, like all weak men, he hovered in the middle; hoping that the voice of his conscience would be muted.
Still, the king's wife, Herodias, knew how to harbor a grudge. When she took offense at what the Baptist said to her husband- which implied that she too was an in an unlawful marriage -her grudge turned into vengeance. And when her husband, King Herod, promised to give her daughter anything she wanted after having danced for him and his court, Herodias seized the opportunity! Unlike her husband, she acted decisively. She told her daughter to request the head of the Baptist. Like Pilate who knew that Christ was innocent when charged with treason, King Herod too knew that St. John the Baptist did not deserve the execution. Nevertheless, he carried out his daughter’s wish.
St. John the Baptist would be the first among many Saints under the New Covenant to die for having told the truth. Yet, just as the Holy Spirit filled him and sanctified him in his mother's womb, that same Spirit inspired a premonition as to his imminent imprisonment and martyrdom.
To Decrease and Fade:
One day on the shores of the river Jordan, St. John the Baptist had gazed upon the long awaited Messiah. Israel had waited centuries for this moment. To be sure, things were about to get exciting; at least for the Apostles and the disciples who would accompany Jesus Christ for the next three and a half years! But as for the Baptist, he was called to fade into the background...to step aside. Pointing to Jesus, he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Soon thereafter, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah would be imprisoned. And within the dark dungeon of his cell, he would hear all of the stories about Jesus: the miracles, the teachings and so much more. Yet, probably more painful than being beheaded was the fact that he could not accompany the Lord during his public ministry; the very Messiah that he worked so hard to "prepare the way" for. But God had preordained that the Baptist would sit on the sidelines, so to speak. This dying to self- this submission to "decrease" while Jesus increased -would prepare St. John for his martyrdom. It was probably a very hard thing to do.
The Rudeness of Love:
The Catholic Church not only honors St. John the Baptist the man, but she holds up his witness for all to see. Yet, not only is his martyrdom recalled by the Church on August 29, but what is especially meaningful to us today is what led to his martyrdom. Out love for King Herod and the countless souls who would be influenced by the sin of adultery, the Baptist spoke up! He drew attention to the very thing that undermines kingdoms and nations; and that something is the breakdown of marriage. Out of love for souls, this prophet from the desert didn't spare the feelings of a king. He had to speak the truth. But in order to do this, he had to be willing to decrease- to die to his self. And in dying to himself, he gained that which gave him strength during the long days in the imprisonment, namely, a foretaste of heaven! For pious souls, even prisons can be a kind of retreat house where Christ can be encountered.
The Church holds his example up for all to see because it is worthy of imitation. Hopefully, it still has the power to inspire members of the Catholic Church- both clergy and laity alike -to give this kind of witness before state leaders, the rich, and even celebrities. For St. John the Baptist, the circumstances required a public confrontation. To whisper a warning to the king behind closed doors was not an option.
Today, we might call this "tough love" but it was the kind of love King Herod needed at the time. And it is the kind of love that many Catholics and non-Catholics need in the twenty-first century need.