John’s life now rushes on towards its tragic end. In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor, Tiberias Caesar, Herod Antipas was the provincial governor or tetrarch of a subdivision of Palestine which included Galilee and Peraea, a district lying east of the Jordan. In the course of John’s preaching, he had denounced in unmeasured terms the immorality of Herod’s petty court, and had even boldly upbraided Herod to his face for his defiance of old Jewish law, especially in having taken to himself the wife of his half-brother, Philip. This woman, the dissolute Herodias, was also Herod’s niece. Herod feared and reverenced John, knowing him to be a holy man, and he followed his advice in many matters; but he could not endure having his private life castigated. Herodias stimulated his anger by lies and artifices. His resentment at length got the better of his judgment and he had John cast into the fortress of Machaerus, near the Dead Sea. When Jesus heard of this, and knew that some of His disciples had gone to see John, He spoke thus of him: “What went you to see? A prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. For I say to you, amongst those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Matthew xi, 10-12).
Herodias never ceased plotting against the life of John, who was not silenced even by prison walls. His followers now became even more turbulent. To Herodias soon came the opportunity she had long sought to put an end to the trouble-maker. On Herod’s birthday he gave a feast for the chief men of that region. In Matthew xiv, Mark vi, and Luke ix, we are given parallel accounts of this infamous occasion which was to culminate in John’s death. At the feast, Salome, fourteen-year-old daughter of Herodias by her lawful husband, pleased Herod and his guests so much by her dancing that Herod promised on oath to give her anything that it was in his power to give, even though it should amount to half his kingdom. Salome, acting under the direction and influence of her wicked mother, answered that she wished to have the head of John the Baptist, presented to her on a platter. Such a horrible request shocked and unnerved Herod. Still, he had given his word and was afraid to break it. So, with no legal formalities whatever, he dispatched a soldier to the prison with orders to behead the prisoner and return with it immediately. This was quickly done, and the cruel girl did not hesitate to accept the dish with its dreadful offering and give it to her mother. John’s brief ministry was thus terminated by a monstrous crime. There was great sadness among the people who had hearkened to him, and when the disciples of Jesus heard the news of John’s death, they came and took the body and laid it reverently in a tomb. Jesus, with some of his disciples, retired “to a desert place apart,” to mourn.
The Jewish historian Josephus, giving further testimony of John’s holiness, writes: “He was indeed a man endued with all virtue, who exhorted the Jews to the practice of justice towards men and piety towards God; and also to baptism, preaching that they would become acceptable to God if they renounced their sins, and to the cleanness of their bodies added purity of soul.” Thus Jews and Christians unite in reverence and love for this prophet-saint whose life is an incomparable example of both humility and courage.
Excerpted from Lives of the Saints, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.
Commentary for the Readings in the Extraordinary Form:
Solemnity of St. John the Baptist
St. Luke tells us in his Gospel that John was conceived in a miraculous manner and that his parents were Zachary and Elizabeth. He spent his youth in the desert, and at the age of 30 came to Judea and preached near the Jordan. He exhorted the people to do penance because the kingdom of God was at hand. He baptized the Savior in the Jordan. He rebuked Herod Antipas for taking to himself Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip; at the request of the dancing daughter of Herodias he was imprisoned and beheaded.
John the Baptist is the only saint whose birthday is observed by the Church; he is the only saint who was cleansed from original sin in his mother’s womb and who consequently was holy at his birth. The Gospel describes the joy caused by his birth, and recalls that at the circumcision he did not receive the name of his father, as was customary among the Jews, but the name designated by the angel. He was to be the precursor of the Lord, a mission prefigured by that of Isaias and destined for him by God even before his birth.
The Introit tells us that God made John’s “mouth like a sharp sword.” John was uncompromising in his attitude towards sin, condemned fearlessly his incredulous and adulterous generation, and accepted martyrdom rather than flatter or condone the vices of the rich and the mighty.
Excerpted from The Cathedral Daily Missal, E. M. Lohmann Company