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The Passion of Saint John the Baptist

“The Beheading of John the Baptist” (1608), by Caravaggio

“The Beheading of John the Baptist” (1608), by Caravaggio

Look today to John the Baptist, an enduring model of fidelity to God and his law... Imitate him with docile and trusting generosity” ~ Saint John Paul II

it’s interesting to note in today’s Gospel (Mark 6:17-29), the story which details the beheading of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod, that there exists something of a paradox in the opening verses. Mark tells us that “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a holy and righteous man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.”

What could it have been that drew Herod to John? Why did he like to listen to him?

Perhaps deep down, Herod was truly a man of God, unwilling however to accept those teachings that didn’t coincide with his wants, in this particular case his adulterous desire to marry his brother Philip’s wife Herodias? Or perhaps he admired the great Baptist’s charisma, which sacred scripture tells us John had in spades. Herod on the other hand is depicted as a man devoid of magnetism and charm, or character for that matter. Here was a weak-kneed ruler who governed according to public opinion, standing for nothing other than that which would keep him in power.

To that point, it was Herod’s stark lack of character that ultimately led to John the Baptist’s demise, essentially getting drunk at a banquet and caving to the murderous impulses of his spiteful and scheming wife Herodias, this after having gazed lustfully on her young daughter as she performed a provocative dance. Herod‘s actions serve as a sobering lesson for all of us. Sin begets sin. It was as if adultery wasn’t enough for him; he would then graduate to murder in what can only be described as a landslide of craven debauchery. This is the danger of merely accepting sin in one’s life as opposed to pursuing repentance and transformation. It become a rapacious monster that must be continually fed with more sin. Worse sin. John on the other hand stood firm for the truth, this despite the fact that it would result in his beheading, the most brutal of executions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (524) tells us that ”By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: He must increase, but I must decrease.” The truth of Jesus’ teachings was written on John’s heart from the very moment that God breathed life into his soul. Scripture tells us that he leapt for joy within Elizabeth’s womb the moment that Mary arrived at the house of Zechariah (Luke 1:39-56). Reflecting upon John the Baptist’s willingness to empty himself of his worldly desires thus allowing the spirit of Jesus’ love to fill his heart allows us to contemplate the great things that we too can accomplish if we were to do the same. Of John the Baptist, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once remarked “John had the profound humility to hold up Jesus as the One sent by God, drawing back so that he might take the lead, and be heard and followed.”

He must increase. . . I must decrease.

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On the day in which we remember a zealous, passionate, brave man who played an instrumental part in the early stages of Jesus’ ministry and our salvation story, it’s an opportune time to pray for those very same graces so that we too can emulate the relationship John the Baptist had with his dear friend Jesus. In doing so, we can make Jesus our dear friend as well.

“O glorious Saint John the Baptist, greatest prophet among those born of woman, although thou was sanctified in thy mother's womb and did lead a most innocent life, nevertheless it was thy will to retire into the wilderness, there to devote thyself to the practice of austerity and penance; obtain for us of thy Lord the grace to be wholly detached, at least in our hearts, from earthly goods, and to practice Christian mortification with interior recollection and with the spirit of holy prayer.” ~ Amen


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