The drunken oath of a king with a shallow sense of honor, a seductive dance and the hateful heart of a queen combined to bring about the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. The last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist suffered the same fate as many of his predecessors, rejection and martyrdom. The voice that cried out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight,” accused the guilty and boldly spoke truth.
Today, the Church commemorates one of the oldest feasts within the Church, the Memorial of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s life was a precursor for Jesus’ life in many ways. John, as the New Elijah, prepared the way for Jesus. John baptized with water, Jesus with the Spirit. John’s death likewise foreshadowed the Passion of our Lord. John challenged the authorities of the day, much like Jesus. John gave witness to Jesus by his life and death—and for this reason, Jesus referred to him as the greatest of those “born among women”, those of the Old Covenant pointing ahead to the New.
We hear in the Gospel that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man” (Mark 6:21). While perplexed by John, Herod liked to listen to him. After pledging “whatever you wish…even to half of my kingdom” to his daughter Herodias, Herod was “deeply grieved” by her request for John’s head on a platter. But in cowardly fashion, to save face in front of his court, he honored her request. How often do I cower in fear instead of doing what is right and just? Today’s culture is quick to cancel those who speak out against immoral and unjust behaviors. However, we who follow Christ must have the courage of St. John the Baptist.
How can we be so brave? St. John the Baptist was left to sit in a prison cell, and then was beheaded. His death seems like such an unheroic, anticlimactic, abrupt end for him. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). We find our courage by surrendering to God’s plan and trusting in His ways. God gives us the strength to bear the crosses we carry.
How does Christ save? Not always by rescue. He fortifies the human heart to surrender, to lay down its life freely. No greater love exists than that a man lay down his life for his friends. And the power that makes that surrender possible is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, from whom St. John was never separated.
Each of us is up against something that requires us to “fight hard,” from ordinary human weakness to temptations to sin. In this scene in Herod’s court there is a lot of drinking, a lot of foolish conversation, sinful propositions, manipulation, swearing, laughter. This is a crowd of people who are not fighting hard to do anything good. We often find ourselves in similar situations. But there is one man who is sober, self-controlled, alone, praying …St. John the Baptist. We can learn from his behavior.
We are at our best when are fighting hard within ourselves for Christ, when we are doing battle against our own enemies, when we remember the attractions of the world, and yet cling to Christ within. In the words of St. John himself, “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30) We must let go of our will and be filled with Christ’s presence. We must trust in the Lamb of God who takes away our fears to do battle and enables us to fight hard for Him, and with Him, to overcome the world.