By Mother Miriam, CSM
I am a cradle Episcopalian, born on the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Fortunately, I grew up in an American prayer book parish, so I never experienced the ecclesiastical parody of St. John Baptist’s martyrdom in Alice in Wonderland, when the Queen of Hearts shouts “Off with her head!” That was saved for fun in the convent. As a novice I have fond memories of sharing the day with the Mother Superior (also born on the feast, but in an earlier year). We ate angel food and devil’s food cake and never agreed on which was intended for whom.
In all seriousness, understanding the sense behind celebrating St. John’s beheading takes a mature understanding of Christian vocation, life, and mission. We should venerate it, rather than performing an Alice in Wonderland satire. We have in this event an honorable witness to truth, right living, and holiness through suffering. Abbot Prosper Guéranger traces the feast from the Greek Church, which claimed that the Forerunner died within a short time of Christ’s Passion, but set the date of the feast on the day when his skull was “discovered” in Emesa, Syria, so that it might have a more honored celebration. Early Christian and Jewish writers tell many gruesome stories of the later situational punishments of Herod Antipas, Herodias, and Salomé — all with the conviction that wickedness cannot be covered by the solemnity of an oath.
St. John Chrysostom waxes eloquent upon the subject of the oath being the entrapment of the devil through Salomé’s seduction of Herod during his birthday celebration. A petty tyrant wanting to look all-powerful before his invited guests chose an ill-considered promise more important than the life of a good man. Herod had been afraid to eliminate John because of his courageous and holy tongue. The irony, of course, is that John the Baptist won everlasting life and a venerated memory while Herod gained nothing but condemnation.
There are so many layers of lessons in this one simple tragedy, depending upon which character one considers.
- The snowballing effect of sin: sexual appetite unchecked, paired with the presumed gluttony of a feast, leading to a rash promise and a reckless demand of murder (the Herodians)
- The danger of speaking truth to a tyrant (John)
- The transcendence of righteousness over fear in the presence of God’s call to witness (John)
John Chrysostom in On the Providence of God 22.8-9 writes,
Note well the weakness of the tyrant compared to the power of the one in prison. … [John] immediately inspired fear in Herod after his murder for fear was disturbing Herod’s conscience to such an extent that he believed John had been raised from the dead and was performing miracles! (cf. Mark 6:14-16)
What has all this horror to do with those who read this post? What can we learn from John the Baptist, as dramatically unique as he is? How do we hear the still, small voice of conviction that says “What are you doing, Elijah?” How do we know when that voice is real or something to be ignored? From where does the initiative to challenge gross error, indecency, or plain ordinary sin come? How do we live in peace with our conscience?
The world is too small to run away from dilemmas such as these, or to walk away from people with whom we have violent disagreements or are disillusioned after high hopes of building something beautiful for God. It is risky to be a person with a clear conscience balanced between two opposites. Edith Stein is a modern example. She was willing to endure her Jewish family’s rejection and her professional academic colleagues’ disapproval of her entrance into a Carmelite monastery, but neither would she deny her Jewish heritage before the menace of Nazism.
Even in the womb before his blessed birth, John the Forerunner had the insight that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah of God. Yet ultimately even he was conflicted and had to ask, “Are you the one or shall we expect another?” And Jesus kindly returned the answer to him who was imprisoned, “Tell John what you see: the lame walk, the blind see, and the poor have the Good News preached to them.” That was all he needed to hear because those were the signs the prophets ascribed to the coming Messiah.
Ultimately, faithfulness requires continued engagement without compromise of conscience. The engagement in faith may mean powerlessness in the end, but ultimately who wins the victory of life? The murderer with power? Or the righteous one who remains in faith and peaceful trust in the Lord? O, Herod, if you had just been creative enough to think of the way out of your oath by giving John’s head on a large enough platter that his body need not be divided! Sometimes humor can be the best policy; but, of course, Herod ultimately willed to be rid of John and the oath was merely a pretense.
Have I come to appreciate this feast celebrated on the day of my birth? Well, John was a unique though not comfortable soul to be close to, but his words led to Jesus. He consented to be the Forerunner, expressing God’s forgiveness and baptizing repentant sinners. Those of us born on August 29 do well to hold life in the delicate balance of human faithfulness to God’s precepts and loving forgiveness of those who have strayed from those precepts or perhaps just from flawed expectations of the results of that faithfulness. Death will never be the final answer to the tension, only salvation and eternal life in Christ, thanks be to God.
While I formerly considered sharing a birthday with wicked Herod Antipas a cloud over my existence, I learned to consider it an honor of sharing a collation with a saintly Mother Superior who taught me to venerate St. John Baptist’s decollation and honored entrance into God’s kingdom.