Memorial of the Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist
1 Corinthians 1:17-25
Psalms 33:1-2, 4-5, 10-11
The story of the martyrdom of John the Baptist as related by Mark could be one taken directly out of a Hollywood movie (and yes, I know, it has been part of many of them!)
It is a colorfully tragic story filled with intrigue, deceit and duplicity. The early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea confirms the story, not only by referencing the Gospel of Mark, but also by invoking the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus adds to our knowledge of the tale by telling us that Herod Antipas’ lawful wife was the daughter of King Aretas IV of Petra (located now in present day Jordan) and that due to this unlawful divorce, King Aretas went to war with Herod. As a result of the turmoil, the Romans overseers stepped in and forced Herod and Herodias into exile, stripping Herod of his kingdom, and installing a Roman governor instead.
However while on the surface all of this is interesting, I think Mark, as the recorder of this incident, wanted to express a deeper truth than just laying out the facts bare. One of these insights might be that telling the truth is far different that embracing the Truth!
It is obvious from the all the sources we currently have available that John the Baptist told people the truth about life, their lives. And he did so in an exceptionally challenging way! However, it wasn’t just enough for John to tell people the truths about themselves. He also asked them to embrace the truths about themselves, the good and the not-so-good and to do something about the latter. His call to baptism – a ritual cleansing of sin – committed the person to a new, more positive direction in their lives, opening them up to the message of Jesus. Truly John was the forerunner to Jesus – a Jesus whose proclamation of God’s reign inaugurated a new relationship between God and humankind as well as among humans themselves.
The sad and tragic part of today’s gospel tale then is not necessarily John the Baptist’s martyrdom, but rather Herod Antipas’ inability to embrace his truth and accept the Truth.
He found John’s words interesting and even listened to him after John’s arrest. But could not, would not, effect the change needed to bring his life back into relationship with God.
As Bede the Venerable says in today’s Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours: "blessed John suffered imprisonment and chains as a witness to our Redeemer…His persecutors had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth…Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ."
The challenge for us believers today is to embrace the truth of the totality of our whole lives and offer this to Christ, knowing that by doing so, we embrace the Truth, Christ himself!
Patrick Quinn is the director of Planned Giving, Holy Cross Province. He lives in Chicago.