The Martyrdom of John the Baptist

Mark 6: 17-29
Jer 1:17-19 / Psa 71

Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.
(Matthew 11:11)

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

On the prodding of Herodias, Herod gave orders to have John arrested, and put in prison. It was because St. John had been telling 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. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. The daughter of Herodias came in and danced, pleasing Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” He even made an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” She answered, “The head of John the Baptist.” At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a dish.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he could not refuse her. So he promptly sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought 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. (Mark 6: 17-29)

Reflection

Today we commemorate the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. St. John was the first and foremost martyred witness of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is also regarded in Biblical history as the last prophet of the Old Testament, tasked to herald the coming Messiah. He is therefore the bridge between the Old and the New Testaments, and rightly occupies the exalted position of being the greatest of all the prophets. And this was not because he happened to be the cousin of Jesus Christ. It was simply because of his humility, and his great courage to speak out for the truth. Jesus praised him, saying, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Mt.11:11).

Ominously, Jesus also predicted St. John’s fate when He said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force” (Mt. 11:12). Although he was the most gentle of Christ’s prophets, his life was caught inextricably in a web of illicit relations, intrigue, incarceration and violent death. During his time, St. John played his role as the conscience of the people. He was not afraid to tell the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism, “You brood of vipers!” (Mt.3:7) And to chastise Herod, saying, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mk. 6:18) It was inevitable therefore that Herodias, that adulterous woman, would not only scheme to get him imprisoned, but would use her own daughter and Herod’s drunkenness or misplaced honor to have St. John’s head.

Today’s Gospel passage does not purport to show that evil can triumph over good. It never does and it never will. St. John’s martyrdom serves as an example for all Christians to stand for the truth, even to the point of death. His death in fact laid bare the social evils of those in power: adultery, revenge, false pride, cowardice and murder. Martyrdom means victory in the kingdom of God, just as these social evils spell defeat for the souls they ensnare.

Father God, we give You praise for the life of Your great saint, St. John the Baptist. May his example be our inspiration to fight for the truth and never to compromise it. Amen.

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