The Passion of Saint John the Baptist

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29 August 2017

Without doubt, this is one of the most dramatic episodes in the bible.

Herod Antipas was the youngest son of Herod ‘the Great’, a sadistic man who had two of his sons murdered when he perceived them to be a threat. Antipas himself does not get good press in the New Testament, but whatever else we might say about him, he was a survivor. He ruled as king of the Roman client state of Galilee and Perea in the North and East of Palestine for over 40 years. He arrested John because John had come out publically against his marriage to Herodius, the former wife of his half brother Philip. Herodius, it seems, had divorced Philip to marry Antipas in clear contravention of the Jewish law, the Torah.

This is a tragic and fascinating story for a number of reasons, not least because ‘Herod feared John’. Given that Herod ruled with Roman backing, he had a violent reputation and an army of his own, that is quite a statement. John was in prison, probably still clothed in camel hair, yet Herod was the one who was afraid!

Herod may have feared John, but he still liked to listen to him. On one hand he is mired in corruption and sin, no doubt finding plenty of justifications in his own mind for his violent, debauched life style. Yet the truth that John spoke was beautiful, and even Herod was drawn to listen to it.

Herod was deeply distressed when the Herodius’ daughter demanded John’s head on a dish, but he was in too deep. Pride and vanity on one hand and fear of the opinion of his guests on the other over-ran the flicker of goodness remaining in his heart.

And what about Herodius, the main villain in the story? Bitter and enraged by the prophet she perceives to be blocking her rise to further power and influence, she is prepared to use her daughter’s talent and reading between the lines, sexual appeal, to entrap her vacillating, vain husband, making her daughter an active participant in evil.

Finally there is John himself. A man of the Spirit, he valued speaking the truth ahead of protecting his own life. No doubt about it the guy has guts, and the courage of his convictions.

What can we draw from this extraordinary story?

Well you don’t want to be a Herod, drawn to the truth but too embroiled in vanity and fear of others’ opinions to say or do what is right.

You definitely don’t want to be a Herodius, trapped in bitterness and personal ambition, using others to do wrong for your own advancement.

We could all use the courage of John the Baptist, particularly when being a public Christian and standing up for what you know to be true can lead to hostility and even open derision in these increasingly secular times.

The virtue of courage, which John had in spades, is exactly what we need to pray for today.


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