The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist – Memorial Readings

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:17-19; Ps 70; Mark 6:17-29

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 and who ultimately executed him.

The story told in today’s Gospel 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 not named, but by 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 his 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.

The First Reading are words of encouragement for the prophet Jeremiah as goes out to face great hostility from the kingdoms of the north in his proclaiming of God’s message. “Be not crushed on their account,” Yahweh says to his prophet. Instead, he is to stand up and speak out “as though I would leave you crushed before them”.
For Yahweh has made Jeremiah “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass against the whole land, against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and its people”. They will attack Jeremiah but they will not prevail. “I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” John the Baptist too had to stand up to a king and his wife who thought they could take God’s law into their own hands. John may have died but he won the moral victory and for that we still recognise and honour him today.

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