Saint John Vianney was so opposed to the dances held routinely in his small town of Ars that he dedicated a small chapel in his parish church to Saint John the Baptist. At its entrance was painted, perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek, a warning of the evil effects produced by lust and drink: “His head was the price of a dance.” Saint John the Baptist’s head was, indeed, the wage rendered by an older man for the satisfaction of watching a young girl dance at his birthday party.
More remotely, however, John’s beheading was not caused by a suggestive dance. He paid with his head for poking the bear. John denounced King Herod Antipas, to his face, for divorcing his lawful wife and taking as his own Herodias, his sister-in-law, the wife of his still living half-brother Philip. (Convoluted family blood lines also made Herodias Herod’s niece.) John the Baptist died a martyr for marriage.
Herod Antipas was a tetrarch—one of four rulers who co-governed ancient Palestine as client kings under the oversight of a Roman governor. Herod Antipas learned cruelty at home on his father’s knee. His father, Herod the Great, had two of his own sons strangled to death, murdered his favorite wife, and ordered the slaughter of all the male babies of Bethlehem.
Herod Antipas’ imprisonment and execution of John was more aggressive than his restrained interaction, a few years later, with John’s cousin. Jesus had called Herod a “fox” when some pharisees told Jesus that Herod was plotting His death. Pontius Pilate later sent Jesus to Herod for interrogation after Pilate determined that the Jew’s complaints about Jesus fell more under Herod’s jurisdiction than Pilate’s own.
At this strange audience in Jerusalem between Herod and Jesus on Good Friday, Herod wanted Jesus to perform a miracle for him, as if Jesus were a mere magician who pulled rabbits out of hats. But Jesus said not a word to the man who killed His beloved cousin. Jesus, after all, did not come to provide bread and circuses to the curious. He performed miracles to elicit and to reward faith. So the fox sent Jesus back to Pilate for what always happened next.
Herod is to John the Baptist what Pilate is to Jesus. Neither Herod’s nor Pilate’s first choice was to order an execution. But cowardice and fear coalesced until commanding the death of an innocent man was more expedient than braving the ridicule and threats of subordinates. According to Saint Mark, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man…When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him” (Mk 6: 20).
“[Herod] was deeply grieved” (Mk 6: 26) that he had to order John’s death. But he didn’t actually have to order John’s death. If he were truly grieved, he could have stood up in the midst of the happy crowd, said “I made a stupid promise which I now regret,” and granted Salome (her name is not found in the Bible) some other handsome gift instead of a blood-splattered plate. Herod beheaded a man to save face, to avoid embarrassment, and to avoid having to say “I made a mistake.”
The Passion, or Beheading, of Saint John the Baptist is one of the very oldest liturgical feasts on the Church’s calendar. John’s birth may be the oldest feast. Along with the feasts of Holy Week, the original event of John’s death is right there on the surface of Holy Scripture, and so likely was commemorated as soon as the Church started commemorating anything. John the Baptist’s colorful life on the edge of respectability came to an abrupt end due to the weakness of a weak man, Herod, and due to the revenge sought by the troubled conscience of Herodias, who despised John for mentioning the obvious. Saint Jerome writes that Herodias’s rage was not satiated by the grisly head of her tormentor on a platter, but that she rabidly stabbed the tongue which had indicted her even after it was silenced.
Reflection and Prayer
Saint John the Baptist, your penitential life ended abruptly when you spoke the truth to power. You did not flinch, vacillate, or equivocate. You were imprisoned and then killed for defending the dignity of marriage. Help us to be as courageous and plainspoken as you.