Today we commemorate the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, perhaps second only to the Crucifixion of Christ as an example the unjust use of the powers of the world against God and those who follow His holy law. You are familiar with John from the scripture readings during Advent - he was the son of the priest Zachary and his wife Elizabeth, who thought that they were far to old to have children; he grew up and went into the desert for a number of years before being directed by God to preach in preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ. He can very well be said to be the “last prophet of the Old Testament”-the last in a long line of men who prepared Israel for the coming of the Messias. Today we read about how he met his untimely end at the hands of Herod Antipas.
Herod Antipas was one of several kings named "Herod," from a family that seemed to breed nothing but nasty men, who thought nothing of killing one another, and even less of killing their subjects. Antipas seems to have been one of "milder" Herods, more concerned with enjoying the pleasures of life than with killing anyone -- but this man named John the Baptist seemed bent on disturbing that enjoyment.
Herod had married and divorced, and had now taken up with the wife of his brother Philip, while Philip was yet very much alive. John had taken to reminding Herod that he was sinning seriously, -- by committing adultery, and by scandalizing his subjects. Actually, John was acting in a rather understanding manner, for under the Law of Moses the Jewish people were supposed to put adulterers to death by stoning them. Herod himself seemed content with merely locking John away for a while -- perhaps a few months in a dark and damp hole in the ground would quiet his tongue a bit -- but his brother's wife Herodias was a bit more effected by the embarrassment of being denounced as a public sinner. We all know the story of how her daughter Salome caught Herod's eye with her dancing, and how he promised to give her anything he had up to half of his kingdom. At the mother's urging, she asked for "the head of John the Baptist on a plate."1
Herod did not get completely away with his crimes. His first wife's father, taking revenge for his daughter's treatment, defeated Herod in battle a few years later; and when he went to Rome to petition the Emperor Caligula for the kingship over the lands formerly held by Herod's father, the Emperor responded by sending him into exile in the wilds of Gaul-modern day France, but then a barbarian backwater.
And one has to feel just a little bit sorry for the young Salome, who was probably treated by her mother as a rival for Herod's affections, and who had passed up the change to live very comfortably in return for getting the blood of an innocent man on her hands. And, her mother, Herodias, of course died not with the comforts of a princess, but rather in exile with her broken husband.
But, probably, the most disturbed by these events were the disciples of the Baptist. John had a number of men who formerly went about the countryside with him, preaching his baptism of repentance for sin and preparing the way of the Lord -- they were a bit like the disciples of Christ (in fact two of them, Andrew and John the Evangelist, later became followers of our Lord).2 John made it clear that his mission was only temporary -- that he was preparing the way for another, "the strap of whose sandal [he was] not worthy to loose."3 But a temporary mission was one thing; it was quite another for their leader to be imprisoned and so horribly put to death for no particular crime at all.
John's disciples must have had a terrible feeling of powerlessness. A great injustice took place right before their eyes -- and they could do nothing. Herod was the local government -- the Romans would do nothing against their puppet king -- the Synagogue would do nothing for fear of the Romans -- and the common people would do nothing for fear of Herod and the Romans and the Synagogue. John's death was the kind of thing that lesser men just like to forget about. If it happened today the newspapers would report that John was some sort of an anarchist, probably with ties to the "militia movement," or to some new terrorist group, and that his death appeared to be a suicide. In John's time, it just didn't matter for practical purposes, for no one could do anything about it.
Perhaps all they could do was remember. John's story would be told to coming generations. It might some day inspire someone else to stand up to a tyrant and (maybe) to win -- just maybe, some time in the future, the synagogue and the common people wouldn't be quite so timid, and would call governors to account for their transgressions. John's courage and his death might somehow serve to make a little better world.
If not his courage, at least the story of John's resignation would serve future generations: he was willing to sacrifice himself to the very end for the coming of the Kingdom of God. He was, in the words of Isaias the Prophet, "making straight the way of the Lord." His baptism of repentance prepared the way for our Lord's Baptism of sanctifying grace. It mattered not that his disciples left him and joined Jesus in His mission. Not long before his death, the Baptist said of our Lord: "My joy is made full; He must increase, but I must decrease."
Our Lord must have had His cousin, John the Baptist, in mind when he spoke the words on the Mount: "Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."4
In the best of all world, injustice would always be resisted and overcome -- the widows, the weak, and the orphans would have nothing to fear from the rich and the powerful. Justice would be done in the here and now, and not in the hereafter. But we must live in the only world that we have -- we must do our best, knowing that we will sometimes fail. When it is impossible to obtain justice for ourselves or our neighbors, we must obtain comfort from the story of John the Baptist. As his Cousin says:
"Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed shall you be when men hate you, and when they shut you out and reproach you, and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and exult, for your reward is great in heaven."5