Gospel reading: Mark 6:17-29
Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison
on account of Herodias,
the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod,
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him
and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man,
and kept him in custody.
When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed,
yet he liked to listen to him.
She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday,
gave a banquet for his courtiers,
his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.
Herodias’ own daughter came in
and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl,
“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her,
“I will grant you whatever you ask of me,
even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request,
“I want you to give me at once
on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed,
but because of his oaths and the guests
he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders
to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it,
they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
Dear fellow pilgrims,
Today is a peculiar and peculiarly brutal feast day, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. (Side note: This was one of the two choices that Aidan and I could have gotten married, and we chose August 1st instead because 1. It was sooner than August 29th, and 2. We felt a little… weird about the prospect of sharing this feast day with our wedding day.) This is a peculiar feast day because saints’ feast days, at least in the Roman Catholic Church (I’m not sure about Eastern orthodox feast days), are usually celebrated on the day of their death, because that’s when their race was finished and they passed into eternal life. But St. John the Baptist also has a feast day for his birth. I am just learning that this is because he was freed from original sin in the moment he “leapt in the womb” because of the proximity of Jesus in Mary’s womb, and thus, was born into this world without original sin. The only other feast day for another nativity other than Christ’s in Mary’s own nativity, because she too was born into this world, but also conceived without original sin.
While I don’t know the theology behind what it means exactly to be freed of original sin, what can I observe is that this is a privilege reserved to only Mary and St. John the Baptist, and probably because of their proximity to Jesus’ mission; God was giving them an indispensable tool to fight that same mission alongside Christ, and in the case of St. John the Baptist, act as the “forerunner” of Christ. And this is why we celebrate specifically the Passion of St. John the Baptist today: this passion preceded His Passion.
There are many parallels between St. John the Baptist’s passion and Christ’s passion:
Both St. John the Baptist and Jesus were…
- … speaking truth to power
- John was pointing out that Herodias was an illegitimate wife of Herod.
- Jesus pointed out that many of the Pharisees were illegitimate leaders of the Jewish people.
- … locked up by powerful figures who were also aware of their righteousness.
- “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody.”
- Pontius Pilate’s wife, and arguably also Pontius Pilate, knew Jesus was a holy man and did not deserve to die.
- … killed at the result of a powerful man being pulled in the direction of the crowds after feeling much tension within himself over whether or not he should kill them.
- “The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.”
- “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
- … displayed to a crowd after they were murdered
- on a platter
- on the Cross
There is a special relationship that John has with Jesus because we all follow Jesus, but, in a way, Jesus followed John, since he was the “forerunner of the Messiah.” In the linear line of human history, Jesus followed John, but in Salvation History that exists outside of time, Jesus’ sacrifice and Resurrection preceded and enabled St. John the Baptist to live a life of virtue. What humility of Christ to follow his second cousin in death, and also to share a small portion of the genetic information of the blood they both shed because of their familial ties. What humility of both St. John the Baptist and Christ, to die in such brutal and tragic ways… at the hands of men who were interiorly struck by their holiness, but torn between this faint truth within them and their earthly roles that pointed to killing as the only “solution.”
Today, let us pray that we adopt the attitude of this “forerunner,” living on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and always attuning our lives to something greater than us.