The Martyrdom of John the Baptist

Mark 6: 17-29
Jer 1:17-19/Ps 71:1-6,15,17

Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.
(Mark 6:22)

St. John the Baptist is our model,
His life for Truth he sacrificed;
Let his courage be our example,
To be a herald for Jesus Christ.

Herod had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, even half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”
“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Reflection

King Herod, drunk with wine and power, was so pleased with the dance performance of Salome, Herodias’ daughter, during his birthday banquet that in front of his guests he made this oath that he would forever regret to his dying day. Herodias, his evil mistress, was quick to seize on the occasion, and instructed her daughter to ask for the head of her archenemy, John the Baptist.

There is only one exception to breaking one’s word of honor — when the consequence of keeping it is malicious or immoral. King Herod never had any discernment of this because he valued his face more than his heart or soul. He was more concerned about his prestige rather than with his conscience. He would rather murder an innocent man — in fact, a holy man — than retract his pledge to a mere dancing girl, the offspring of his whore. As frequently happens to fools who fall, it is because of their fear to incur the reproach of men that they “justify themselves in the sight of others, but God knows their hearts; for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Lk.16:15) John the Baptist lost his head, but gained God’s kingdom. Herod should have offered his whole kingdom instead of losing his soul.

God’s justice caught up with Herod, Herodias and Salome in their lifetimes. Salome fell through the ice of a frozen river. While her body floated in the water, her head stayed above the ice, until the sharp ice severed her neck. Her headless body was never found; her severed head was brought to Herod and Herodias just as the head of John the Baptist had been brought to them at an earlier time. The Arabian king, Aretas, Herod’s father-in-law, attacked Herod to avenge the shame of his discarded daughter. With his defeat, Herod fell from the good graces of Emperor Caligula and was exiled with Herodias to Spain, where they met their untimely death.

We commemorate the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist as a reminder of the kind of hardship God’s followers will undergo, but for which they will also be greatly blessed. It also warns us to avoid the excesses of pelf and power, which constantly lead to such terrible sins. Our Church teaches us that St. John, the Forerunner of the Messiah, is the greatest of all saints after the Blessed Mother. Jesus said, “Among those born of women, there is no greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Lk.7:28).

Lord God, as we commemorate the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist today, we pray for his intercession, that You may grant us the spirit of boldness, to stand up for the truth, and to condemn what is wrong wherever we find the occasion. Amen.

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