Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist
Art: St. John the Baptist and the Pharisees By James Tissot
Reading 1 1 COR 2:1-5
proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.
Responsorial Psalm PS 119:97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102
How I love your law, O LORD!
It is my meditation all the day.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
Your command has made me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
I have more understanding than all my teachers
when your decrees are my meditation.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
I have more discernment than the elders,
because I observe your precepts.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
From every evil way I withhold my feet,
that I may keep your words.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
From your ordinances I turn not away,
for you have instructed me.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
Alleluia MT 5:10
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
The Beheading of St John the Baptist, 1608 (Valletta Co-Cathedral, Malta) by Caravaggio
Gospel MK 6:17-29
Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison
on account of Herodias,
the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod,
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him
and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man,
and kept him in custody.
When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed,
yet he liked to listen to him.
She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday,
gave a banquet for his courtiers,
his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.
Herodias’ own daughter came in
and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl,
“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her,
“I will grant you whatever you ask of me,
even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request,
“I want you to give me at once
on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed,
but because of his oaths and the guests
he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders
to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it,
they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
Passion of John the Baptist – Commentary on Mark 6:17-29 From Living Space
Today’s celebration commemorates the death of John the Baptist, which was in many ways a precursor to the death of Jesus. From the time of their birth, the lives of Jesus and his cousin are closely linked.
.From the very beginning John paves the way for Jesus. There are similarities about their birth, their work and their death. Yet, as John always insisted, he was just preparing the way for Jesus, the thongs of whose sandals he was not worthy to loosen.
There is a key word in the Gospel which goes like a refrain right through it. That is the term ‘handed over’. The Greek word is paradidomi and it means ‘to hand over’. In Latin it becomes tradere, from which we get the words ‘tradition’ (handing on of customs and wisdom of the past) and ‘traitor’ (the treacherous handing over of a person into the hands of another). The whole of the Scripture is ‘tradition’ in that sense and we use the word ‘traitor’ for people who treacherously betray some good person or good value. The verb ‘hand over’ is used in the Gospel of John the Baptist, of Jesus and of his most faithful disciples. .
It was something of which Jesus spoke several times. And it continues to our own day. Today we remember the ‘handing over’ of John the Baptist into the power of people who were totally against what he stood for.
The story is told in today’s Gospel which comes from Mark. Not altogether coincidentally, it is sandwiched between Jesus sending his disciples out on a mission to do the same work he was doing and their coming back full of enthusiasm for what they had been doing. As Jesus would tell them, the day would come when they, too, would be ‘handed over’ (Matt 10:17ff.)After he had sent them out, Mark tells us that King Herod was getting reports of the wonderful things that Jesus was doing – healing the sick, liberating people from evil powers, even bringing people back to life. Herod, however, thought it must have been John Baptist come back to life with new powers who was responsible. Other opinions were that Jesus was really Elijah, who was expected to return to earth on the eve of the Messiah’s coming.
Others were saying that Jesus was just another prophet. However, Herod was convinced that it was John, whom he had beheaded. “He has been raised up.” It was clear that his killing of John the Baptist was a source of great disquiet to him.
It is then that Mark relates how this killing took place and it is the reading for us today. John the Baptist had been put in prison by Herod because John had criticised the king for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. This was a clear act of adultery and clearly condemned by the Law of Moses. “It is not lawful for you to take your brother’s wife,” John had said.
Herodias was deeply resentful of John for this and wanted to get rid of him. Herod, however, respected John as a good and holy man and would do no more than keep him in prison. Although John was critical of Herod’s behaviour, the king could not resist listening to him speak. Then, one day, Herodias saw her chance. On his birthday Herod threw a large party for his courtiers, his military officers and leading citizens of Galilee. During the meal, Herodias’ daughter came in and danced. (She is nameless but in tradition she is called Salome.) The king and all his guests were completely won over by her performance. The king, undoubtedly having had a few tankards of wine too much, promised to give the girl anything she wanted, even if it were half of his kingdom.
Excitedly, the girl went to her mother. “What should I ask for?” She may have been somewhat disappointed and bemused when her mother suggested: “The head of John the Baptist.” However, she went straight back to the king and said: “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” Herod was horrified but he had made his oaths and could not lose face in front of his guests. An executioner was sent to decapitate John and bring the head back to the assembly. The head was then given by the executioner to the girl, who in turn handed it over to her vindictive mother.
Later, John’s disciples took the body and buried it. John is often called the Precursor, literally, the one who runs in front of. John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. Yet he was really a man of the Old Testament, the last of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus would say that even the least in the Kingdom of God inaugurated by him would be greater than John. In fact, John first appears in Mark’s gospel just at the beginning of Jesus’ public life. As Jesus began his mission to proclaim the Kingdom, John had already been arrested and had left the public scene.
But John was a precursor not only in the sense of preparing people for the coming of Jesus, he also was a man of complete integrity and was ready to give his life for truth and justice. Hence, he was the first of those who would be ‘handed over’ and who would be ready to die for his God. In this he prepared the way for Jesus and those of his followers who would be handed over and give their lives. And of this we are the beneficiaries. Each one of us, too, needs to be ready hand over our lives for the work of the Kingdom.
Image: Actress Brigid Bazlen plays “Salome” in the film, “King of Kings.”
Salome Receiving the Head of St John the Baptist painting – Giovanni Francesco Barbieri.
• Mark 6, 17-20. The cause of the imprisonment and murdering of John. Herod was an employee of the Roman Empire, who commanded in Palestine since the year 63 before Christ. Caesar was the Emperor of Rome. He insisted above all, in an efficient administration which would provide revenue for the Empire and for him. The concern of Herod was his own promotion and his security. This is why he repressed any type of corruption. He liked to be called the benefactor of the people, but in reality he was a tyrant (cf. Lk 22, 25). Flavio Giuseppe, a writer of that time, informs that the reason for the imprisonment of John the Baptist was the fear that Herod had of a popular uprising or revolt. The denunciation of John the Baptist’s against the depraved morality of Herod (Mk 6, 18), was the drop which made the glass overflow, and John was imprisoned.
• Mark 6, 21-29: The plot of the murderer. The anniversary and banquet of the feast, with dancing and orgy were the occasion for the murdering of John. It was an environment in which the powerful of the kingdom met together and in which the alliances were formed. In the feast participated “the great of the court, two officials and two important persons from Galilee”. This was the environment in which the murdering of John the Baptist was decided. John, the prophet, was a living denunciation of that corrupt system, and this is why he was eliminated under the pretext of a personal vengeance. All this reveals the moral weakness of Herod. So much power accumulated in the hands of one man who had no control of self. In the enthusiasm of the feast, of the celebration and of wine, Herod makes a promise by oath to a young girl, a dancer. Superstitious as he was, he thought that he had to keep the promise made by oath. For Herod, the life of the subjects was worthless. This is how Mark gives an account of the fact as it happened and leaves the communities the task of drawing the conclusion.
• Between lines, the Gospel today gives much information on the time in which Jesus lived and on the way in which the power was exercised on the part of the powerful of that time. Galilee, the land of Jesus, was governed by Herod Antipas, the son of King Herod, the Great, from the year 4 before Christ until the year 39 after Christ, 43 years! During the whole time of the life of Jesus on earth there was no change of Government in Galilee! Herod was absolute lord of everything, and did not render an account to anyone, he did as he pleased. In him there was arrogance, lack of ethics, absolute power, without any control on the part of the people!
• Herod constructed a new capital, called Tiberiades. Seffori the ancient capital, was destroyed by the Romans in retaliation against the popular revolt. This happened when Jesus was about seven years old. Tiberiade, the new capital, was inaugurated thirteen years later, when Jesus was approximately 20 years old. The capital was given that name in order to please Tiberius, the Emperor of Rome. Tiberiade was a strange place in Galilee. That was the place where the king, “the great of the court”, the officials, the important people of Galilee lived (Mc 6, 21). The landowners, the soldiers, the policemen lived there and also the judges, who, many times were insensitive, and indifferent (Lk 18, 1-4). The taxes and tributes and the products of the people were channelled there. It was there that Herod held his orgies of death (Mk 6, 21-29). The Gospel does not say the Jesus entered the city.
During the 43 years of the government of Herod, a class of officials, faithful to the project of the king, was created: the Scribes, the merchants, the landowners, the tax collectors on the market, the tax collectors or publicans, the militia, policemen, judges, promoters, local heads. The majority of these persons lived in the capital and enjoyed the privileges which Herod offered, for example exemption from taxes. Others lived in the villages.
• Superstition, corruption, cowardice marked the exercise of power of Herod. Compare this with the exercise of religious and civil power today, in the various levels both of society and of the Church.
I shall never be put to shame.
In your saving justice rescue me,
deliver me, listen to me and save me. (Ps 71,1-2)
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ JEREMIAH 1:17-19; MARK 6:17-29]
In the days of old, prophecy was normally made by a charismatic leader. Most of the time he was a lone voice crying out in the desert, like John the Baptist. This was the case of most of the prophets in the Old Testament. Most of the time, they were fighting against the established institutions. Whether it was Jeremiah, John the Baptist, our Lord Jesus or the apostles, their real enemies and opponents were the rulers of the day, the king, the princes, the nobles, the priests and the powerful. It must have been terribly frightening to be a prophet because the kings and the authorities had power over life and death. To criticize or reprimand those who were in power was to court death, imprisonment and punishment. So it is not surprising that all the prophets, including our Lord, were persecuted, imprisoned, mocked, ridiculed, threatened, intimidated and even killed.
Who wants such a job? Who wants to be unpopular? Who wants to have his life shortened when we have only one life? Who would not be worried for his loved ones, especially his family members, if anything were to go wrong for them? Who is not afraid of pain and rejection, physical and moral suffering? Who is not afraid of loneliness and isolation? We can be sure that when John the Baptist was thrown into the dungeon, a small little cell all chained up in the palace, it must have been very hard and miserable for him as he was so free all his life. Worst of all, a prophet is not paid. He would have to live simply. He is called to be a prophet not just in words but in life. So why be a prophet when there is nothing to gain from it?
Unlike other offices, positions or jobs where people aspire to and work for them, a prophet needs to be called. This is because without conviction and passion this prophetic office cannot be exercised faithfully. Indeed, Jeremiah and John the Baptist knew in their hearts that they were called by the Lord. “The word of the Lord was addressed to me, saying: ‘Brace yourself for action. Stand up and tell them all I command you. Do not be dismayed at their presence, or in their presence I will make you dismayed.’” The prophetic office is not a choice we make based on our likes and preferences. It has to be a call from within our hearts, hence, the Latin word, “vocare”.
Only when we are called, can we then exercise the office with confidence and power. This is because unlike other career choices, we know that we are not working for ourselves but for God and His people. We also know that unlike a career where we need to depend on ourselves, when it is a vocation, we depend more on God who works in and through us. We know that we are not fighting this battle alone but because this mission is from God, He will supply us the graces to accomplish His tasks. This is what the Lord said to Jeremiah, “I, for my part, today will make you into a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze to comfort all this land: the kings of Judah its princes, its priests and the country people. They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you – it is the Lord who speaks.” With the psalmist, we can place our total trust in the Lord to help us and rescue us from our foes. “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.” In the final analysis, a true prophet is so only because we can see the hand of the Lord working in and through him in a most powerful manner.
Whilst the essential pattern of the call to be a prophet and the work is still the same today, the way one is called to exercise the office of prophecy can be quite different. In those days, we depended simply on a charismatic person. This still remains the case today. We need charismatic leaders filled with passion, zeal and conviction for anything to move forward. However, unlike prophecy then, which was localized in a particular county or country, today we live in a global village. It would be impossible to communicate with the rest of society if we simply go about doing our work.
So over and above a charismatic prophet who is both eloquent in words and exemplary in deeds, there is a need for collaboration with others. We need the support of the community as well. This explains why consistently and repeatedly, the popes have reminded us that the mission of the Church must be accomplished in communion. We cannot act alone as in the past. The prophets of today need to be supported by the community if his work were to be effective. If the Church has become a diminishing prophet in the world, it is because we are not working together as Church. If we are fighting among ourselves and divided, Satan is very happy. The world wants to see the Church divided from within so that they do not have to do anything. If we do not support the Holy Father in His mission, the Church cannot be a real prophetic force in the world. If the world listens to the pope, it is because they know that more than a billion people are behind him. So if want to preach about the beauty of married life and the family, we must, as Catholics, demonstrate the joy of married love and the family.
Even this is not sufficient if we want our message to get across to all peoples in the world. Today, we need the media to help us in the work of prophecy. The stark reality is that in a globalized and digital society, the only way to reach out to the masses is to leverage the tools of mass communication. Print alone is no longer effective. The media is a double-edged sword. They can be our friends or our enemies. The power of the media is really great. It can swing the opinions of the masses by the way it reports the news and the way it presents the facts. Public opinion is easily swayed by the media and those who use social communication tools. Quite often, one is elected or heard only because of the support and the sympathy of the media. Thus, the media is a very powerful instrument in the work of prophecy today. If harnessed well, they can help us to spread the Good News and proclaim the truth to the world.
But there are also many Herodias around who would manipulate anyone to serve their cause. Herodiaswould even go to the extreme of allowing her daughter to dance before Herod, which in those days was considered inappropriate for a royal member of the family. But she was so vindictive that she would not spare any effort to destroy her critics. This is true of the world today. Our opponents of the truth and justice can and will do anything to discredit the prophets of the Church, often using the media and manipulating it for their own agenda and interests. If not dealt with properly, they could destroy all that we have built. Thus a prophet today must be on guard against the devious plans and attacks of our enemies all the time.
This is all the more urgent because of relativism. Our hearts inform us of what is right and what is wrong. Herod liked to listen to John the Baptist and yet was afraid of him. Like Herod, we are often in a dilemma. There is in each one of us, good and evil. We are not much different from Herod. We do not like to hear the truth in case we need to change; yet we feel drawn to hear the truth that is proclaimed. As Church, therefore, we need to speak together as one led by our leader, be he our Holy Father or the bishop of the diocese, so that when we speak, we can be heard clearly by the world, as opposed to when we speak singly or as an individual.
Let us today be inspired by John the Baptist’s courage and fidelity to the truth. He preferred to be true to his calling and the voice of God than to listen to the world. He lived and died for the truth. We too are called to be the conscience of the world. We must not hide the truth and choose popularity, acceptance and personal gain over truth and justice. Let us not waiver like Herod and give in to impulse, driven by fear, emotions and self-indulgence. John could do this only because of his relationship with the Lord. He derived his strength and fortitude from prayer and communion with God in the desert and in solitude. If we feel discouraged today, and all alone like Jeremiah, John the Baptist and our Lord, let us go to the garden of Gethsemane and cry out for help. Like the psalmist, we pray, “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.”
Written by The Most Rev Msgr William Goh Archbishop of Singapore.
Tags: 1 cor 2:1-5, August 29 2016, Herodias’ own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests, I will grant you whatever you ask of me, Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist, Mk 6:17-29, MT 5:10, Prayer and Meditation, Psalm 119, Saint John the Baptist, St. John the Baptist, the head of John the Baptist