Because of his importance, John the Baptist is the only saint other than Mary, the Mother of God, whose conception (Sept 23), birth (June 4) and death (Aug 29) are all commemorated. Along with those dates are the commemorations of finding of his head (Feb 24: First and Second times, and May 25 the Third); and the Synaxis on January 7, the day after the Baptism of the Lord (Theophany, January 6). We hold him in such reverence because
– he is the last of the prophets of the Old Testament;
– he is the first to announce the coming of the Messiah to people on earth;
-in his preaching, he fulfilled the role of Elijah and is the forerunner of the Messiah;
– he fearlessly preached the truth, even to the court of Herod, and was killed because of this;
-he preached to the dead in Sheol to announce that their deliverance was at hand in Jesus.
John tells the souls of the Just (all those since Adam) that their deliverance into heaven is close at hand
After the beheading, it is Church Tradition that St. Joanna, wife of Chuza, King Herod’s steward, retrieved the head of John and delivered it to his disciples. She herself belonged to the company of women who assisted Jesus and the apostles, as we see in Luke’s Gospel.
The Gospel tells us that Herod was attracted by John’s words, and that they “deeply disturbed him.” The attraction was obvious: here is the last and greatest Jewish prophet since the days of Elijah, preaching repentance and effecting serious change in the general population of Herod’s kingdom. Prostitutes and tax-collectors mingled with Pharisees and Scribes to be baptized in the waters of repentance, showing that John was truly a forerunner of Jesus. This is how the Eastern Churches see John.
But Herod was disturbed: John was hitting home with his sermons, and Herod knew that what he was doing was wrong. He had been married to the daughter of the king of Nabatea. But after becoming infatuated with his brother’s wife, he was going to divorce her. Instead, she fled to a border post, and her father’s army escorted her home to her furious father, Aretas IV. The Nabateans hungered for revenge. In 27 BC, Herodias and Herod were married, violating religious law and upsetting the balance of power in the region.
Just how far the Herodian court had sunk is borne out in the scriptures: the daughter of Herodias is a princess, of royal blood. She was supposed to be sequestered in the women’s court, or the women’s gallery looking over the dinner. Performing a dance was far below her dignity, and that the men invited to the dinner took delight in it speaks volumes about what that dance contained. Every movie showing the scene strikes home in terms of wild dancing, but cannot show just how horrified Herod’s subjects were at the conduct of his court.
Herod could have rejected the request – he was the king! But because he does not want to appear ill-mannered, in order to please the little crowd and his illegal wife, Herod gives in. That should stand as a warning to us in our day. We are not supposed to go with the crowd, or fail to stand up for what is right.
The insult of that marriage led the Nabatean homeland to rise up against Herod; he was soundly defeated. To make matters worse, he and Herodias were denounced as traitors to the mad emperor, Caligula, and exiled to Gaul. There they both died in a foreign land, in poverty, and such footnotes to history that no one even knows when they died or where they were buried. That was their reward for giving in to lust, for their wickedness, and for Herod’s foolishness in appeasing the crowd.
So, what about us? Presumably those reading my blog are not going about breaking marriage laws. But all of us are presented with repeated opportunities to go with the crowd, or to say something that will leave everyone satisfied, even though it defiles our beliefs.
A learning-disabled student once said to me: “Father, dead fish just go along with the current of the river. I don’t ever want to be a dead fish – I want to be alive and fighting the water and go the right way.” That boy with all his problems knew more than most of our Catholic politicians today!
So, in these last months heading to the presidential election and multiple local elections, let us speak the truth without fear, and know our faith well enough to defend it.
Yes, preaching the truth cost John his life. But everyone remembers John the Baptist, who is honored as a saint, but who the heck cares about Herodias?
PS Although John was killed in the spring, before Passover, we keep this feast on August 29 because that is the day on which a church built over his presumed grave was dedicated, under the reign of Constantine the Great, who had endowed its construction.