The centrality of today feels like a double tragedy. The Gospel retells the details of the tragic murder of John the Baptist and that is framed in the feast of St. Agatha.
We aren’t sure if Agatha was born in Catania or Palermo. The trivial details have long been forgotten. What is remembered is her single-heartedness. What has been passed down and written about is how highly she was venerated in Christian antiquity. She was put to death during the persecution of Decius for her unwavering belief in God.
From her very early years Agatha dedicated her life to God as a consecrated virgin. She desired to give herself totally to Jesus and the Church in a life of prayer and service. A high diplomat named Quintianus thought he could get her to turn away from her vow to God and force her to marry him. Polite proposals escalated to harassment, arrests, imprisonment, and hideous torture. Through all of it Agatha continued her simple prayer of single-heartedness to Christ. Even the prayer attributed to her death, was a single-heart devotion. “Lord, my Creator, you have ever protected me from the cradle; you have taken me from the love of the world, and given me patience to suffer: receive now my soul.”
Agatha’s example is her perseverance in running the race and keeping her eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfector of faith. She embraced the joy found in the presence of Christ, understanding it as the fullness and completeness of life.
We don’t have the last words of John the Baptist’s life. Yet as I read this gospel today, I’m mostly hearing the guilt and the lack of peace in Herod was facing. Not being able to put the event behind him, Herod was haunted by its memory. So much so that he is starting his own conspiracy theory, “It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.” One of the truths of Mark’s writings is that he is direct, short and to the point. For him to include this detail means it was quite significant.
Today’s first reading from Hebrews concludes with these words. “Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
That is quite a request given the fact that today we look at two people who were put to death because of their belief in Jesus.
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is the local superior of St. Vincent Strambi Community in Chicago, Illinois.