29 August. The Passion of St John the Baptist
1st Reading: Jeremiah (1:17-19)
Like Jeremiah, we must speak out against domineering rulers
But as for you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them.
And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.
Responsorial (Ps 70)
R./: I will sing your salvation
In you, O Lord, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your justice rescue me, free me:
pay heed to me and save me.
Be a rock where I can take refuge,
a mighty stronghold to save me;
for you are my rock, my stronghold.
Free me from the hand of the wicked.
It is you, O Lord, who are my hope,
my trust, O Lord, since my youth.
On you I have leaned from my birth,
from my mother’s womb you have been my help.
My lips will tell of your justice
and day by day of your help.
O God, you have taught me from my youth
and I proclaim your wonders still.
Gospel: Mark (6:17-29)
Mark’s laconic account of John the Baptist’s execution
King Herod had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. The man went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Martyred for the truth
John the Baptist was called by God to be the herald or forerunner of Jesus, the Messiah. From his late teenage years he was directed by the Spirit to lead an austere and contemplative life in the desert until he was thirty years of age, when he began to discharge his mission as a preacher of reform and renewal. Clothed in the robes of penance, be invited his people to have their sins washed away by repentance and baptism in the Jordan; and he proclaimed the Messiah who was coming to among them. He was revered by the people as a true prophet of God, and his voice rang out with a clear summons to moral and religious reform. John’s message angered king Herod Antipas and his paramour Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip, with whom he lived in defiance of the law. The Baptist boldly reproached them for the scandal of an incest and adultery, and was imprisoned by Herod.
At a splendid entertainment in the royal palace, Salome, the daughter of Philip and Herodias, captivated the company by her dancing, so that Herod promised her to grant whatever she asked. Urged by her mother, the girl demanded the death of John the Baptist, to be brought to her in a dish. Acting on her wishes, Herod had the Saint beheaded in prison. According to Saint Jerome, the furious Herodias made it her pastime to prick that silenced tongue with a dagger. Today’s feast honours this the great forerunner of Jesus, who gave his life for the truth, about a year before the Passion of our blessed Saviour, whose death on the cross he predicted so tellingly as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Two men of destiny
We have all seen paintings or mosaics of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. Within a few years of that encounter at the Jordan river, both of them would be put to death by the power of Rome. Jesus was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor in Judea, and John the Baptist was beheaded by order of Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee on Rome’s behalf. Jesus must have seen his own destiny foreshadowed in what happened to John the Baptist. John was executed for declaring that Herod had broken God’s Law by marrying his brother Philip’s wife. John the Baptist passionately believed that we should seek and do what God wants of us. He stands out as a beacon of light against the others in the story, King Herod, Herodias his wife, and her daughter. Between them they removed one whom the king admitted was a good and holy man, just as Jesus, the ultimate “good and holy man,” would be killed by another coalition of darkness.
The light shines out in darkness. The light of the Lord’s presence shines in our own darkness, in the dark and difficulty experiences of life. Jesus called John a “burning and shining lamp.” John the Baptist is a role model to us to let the light of our faith shine, the light of the gospel, even when it is not popular or convenient to do so. Our calling is to let the light we received shine brightly, in season and out of season. In his first encyclical, about the Light of Faith, Pope Francis wrote that “there is an urgent need to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God.” [MH]