As we move into Lent, there’s something about Saint John the Baptist that always attracts me.
A guy who wanders around the desert in camel hair, eating bugs and tenaciously speaking truth to those in power captures my imagination. And yet, this year I find myself thinking not only of Saint John, but of the poor guy who, with no warning, was given the grizzly task of beheading Saint John.
Saint Mark’s Gospel, considered the first of the four Gospels proclaiming the Good News, begins with Saint John the Baptist. Saint Luke’s Gospel later notes that Saint John is related to Jesus, the son of Mary’s relative Elizabeth.
But in Saint Mark’s Gospel we’re introduced to John as simply a prophetic “voice of one that cries in the desert.” We’re off and running with little preamble.
Saint John the Baptist is popular and draws crowds but Saint Mark tells us that John is waiting for someone greater than he, someone whose sandals he doesn’t feel worthy to unstrap.
So, John the Baptist lives in the wilderness, preaching and baptizing, eventually baptizing even Jesus himself.
Later in Mark, we see John’s violent end. In Chapter 6, Herod has John arrested. We are told that Herod has no real beef with the prophet. He is actually intrigued by John’s preaching and finds him “upright.” Apparently he doesn’t feel personally threatened by this connoisseur of locusts and wild honey.
But his wife does. Herodias had previously been married to Herod’s brother. John preached openly against her marriage to Herod as a violation of religious law. Herodias took this as a personal affront. But her pleas to Herod to do something drastic with John fell on deaf ears — until the birthday party.
At Herod’s fete, all the big shots were there — “leading figures in Galilee” Mark tells us. No doubt there was plenty of alcohol, too, and by the time the dancing began Herod was probably well oiled. As Herodias’ daughter dances before the crowd, she’s so beguiling and popular with the guests that Herod offers her anything she wants — even half his kingdom. That’s got to be the booze talking.
Mom sees her opportunity. Tell him you want John the Baptist’s head served on a platter.
Saint Mark says this request deeply distresses Herod. But he wants to save face. He sees no way out.
Of course, kings and rulers of this world don’t do their own dirty work. A bodyguard is dispatched to sever the head. I cringe to think of John’s suffering. It reminds me of Henry VIII, who when he had his wife Anne Boleyn beheaded sent to France for the most efficient executioner with the sharpest sword to spare her undue pain.
Not so for John on this miserable night.
Saint Ignatius advises us to pray the Scriptures with our imagination, finding ourselves in the scene — a good Lenten practice. When I imagine myself in this passage, I am the bodyguard assigned this horrible command.
Am I so inured to violence that I just do my job and sleep well that night? Have I become used to the autocratic regime I serve and my place in it?
I ask myself if I could speak truth to power and say no. Could I live and die with the same integrity as John, and later Jesus?
It’s an old question, but it rings just as true today as it did in Jesus’ time.