the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of
Antioch, 1st c. A.D
The Decollation of St. John the Baptist
We celebrated the birth
of St. John the Baptist on June 24, and on July 2, the Feast of the Visitation, we ponder his
being filled with the Holy Ghost while still in his mother's womb.
During Advent, we hear much about
St. John as we prepare for the birth of our Savior -- and for the
return of Christ at the end of time.
Today though, on August 29, we
recall the murder of our Saint -- the "Decollation (beheading) of St.
Baptist." 1 You'll find the story told best in
14:1-13 and Mark 6:14-29.
First, some background information: Herod the Great -- the Herod who
arranged for the Massacre of the
2) -- had a number of
children with many different wives, and when he died, his kingdom was
divided up among three of them.
One of those children was a son named Aristobulus IV. Aristobulus, with
one of his many wives, fathered Herodias, a daughter.
And this is where things grow tricky: Herodias married her half-uncle,
Herod Phillip ("Herod II"). With him, she gave birth to the woman we
know as Salome. Herodias then divorced Herod II -- and married his
half-brother, Herod Antipas, who divorced his first wife to take up
That is the
situation of which St. John the Baptist publicly disapproved. And
Herodias disapproved of St. John's disapproval. And Herod Antipas felt
the need to keep his wife happy. Mark 6:17-18: "Herod himself had sent
and apprehended John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias
the wife of Philip his brother, because he had married her. For John
said to Herod: It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife."
While John was imprisoned, Herod Antipas had a birthday; to celebrate,
he threw a great feast, inviting "the princes, and tribunes, and chief
men of Galilee" (Mark 6:21). During this banquet, Herodias's daughter
-- whom we know as Salome since her name was given as such in
Josephus's 1st century "Antiquities of the Jews" -- danced for Herod
Antipas, her step-father and half-uncle. Herod was pleased with her
wanton display, as Mark 6:22-23 tells us:
of the same Herodias had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod,
and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask
of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he swore to her:
Whatsoever thou shalt ask I will give thee, though it be the half of my
Salome goes to her mother to see what she should ask for. Instead of
telling her to ask for half of the kingdom, or gold, or jewels, the
vengeful Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist,
the man who'd publicly shamed her. Salome does so, asking for his head
on a platter. She got her wish, and gave the gruesome reward to her
mother. When the disciples heard what happened, they came and took
John's headless body, burying it in a tomb.
The dramatic story of John's murder is given to being depicted
artistically, and has been throughout the millennia, especially in
from Gustave Moreau's depiction of Herod's feast. Click to enlarge and
see the entire painting.
Literature, too, has joined the cause, most famously with Oscar Wilde's
play Salome. This play
identifies Salome's dance as the "Dance of the Seven Veils," and
given the nature of the dance, the play was a scandal when it was
written. Richard Strauss wrote an opera based on Wilde's work, and it,
too, had a hard time finding an audience when it was first revealed to
the public. The opera's "Dance of the Seven Veils":
Salome has been depicted by everyone from Theda Bara to Alla Nazimova
in silent movies, and from Rita Hayworth to Brigid Bazlen in "the
And, speaking of silent movies and "talkies" in the same sentence, who
can forget Gloria Swanson in the fabulous 1950 movie "Sunset
pathetic, long past her prime Norma Desmond character -- an old actress
obssessed with making a comeback by playing the young Salome in a play
Yes, Salome has left her titillating mark. Sex -- one of God's greatest
and most pleasurable gifts -- has always been an easy sell when
presented out of context; much more difficult is doing what St. John
the Baptist did and standing up for keeping sex rightly ordered to
Sacrament, the only means to a sane social order. The example of his
fortitude that we honor on this feast is more important today than
ever. Don't be afraid to say what needs to be said -- with prudence,
with all mercy
and charity for sinners, and with no tolerance at all for error. Work
to acquire the cardinal
virtues, and "speak truth to power," as the
radicals used to say. Like the Forerunner, be "the voice of one crying
out in the wilderness"! And if you think you can't do that, at least never, ever lie!
One of the best things you can do this day after honoring St. John
Baptist and asking him to intercede for you is to talk to your children
about the importance of telling the truth. Model honesty to them, and
tell them stories about where dishonesty leads. Some stories for you to
download, including "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," "The Monkey and the
Dolphin," "The Crow and the Raven" (all by Aesop) and "The Emperor's
New Clothes": Stories About the
Importance of Honesty (pdf format, 6 pages).
by the Venerable Bede
consider and commit more actively to memory how almighty God allows his
chosen ones and beloved servants, those he has predestined to life and
his eternal kingdom, to be so stricken in this life by the persecution
of the wicked, to be wasted by so many kinds and such fierce
punishments and deaths. This is so that when we have viewed the
sufferings of perfect men, we may grieve less over the adversities that
perhaps have happened to us, and learn instead to esteem it complete
joy when we fall into various kinds of temptations (James 1:2), keeping
in mind that “The Lord chastises those he loves, and scourges every
child whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6).
Now although the principle stands that “We all offend in many
ways” (James 3:2), which of us dare to say that blessed John sinned in
act or word or dress or food, when the gospel history praises the
harshness of his clothing and the frugality of his meals; when
everything he said either rendered testimony to the truth or refuted
those who spoke against him; when even those who did not like him held
in veneration his works of justice? What place could there have been in
his inmost heart for sin, when the coming of the Holy Spirit
consecrated him even before his birth, when not even in comparison with
the ordinary way of human life could he be turned aside from the path
of virtue, who from his boyhood on led an entirely solitary life?
And yet a man of this sort, one who was so preeminent,
reached the end of his earthly life by shedding his blood after a long
period of affliction in chains. He who brought the good news of the
freedom of heaven was thrust into chains by wicked people; he who “came
to bear testimony to the light” (John 1:8), and who merited to be
called “a burning and shining lamp” by the very light which is Christ
(John 5:35), was shut up in the darkness of prison; he who was greater
than all those born of women (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28) was punished by
being beheaded at the request of the basest of women; and he to whom it
was granted to baptize the world’s Redeemer, to hear the Father’s voice
above him, and to see the grace of the Holy Spirit descending upon him,
was baptized in his own blood.
From the "Book
by St. Ambrose
We must not hurry by the record of the Blessed Baptist John. We must
ask what he was, and by whom, and why, and how, and when he was slain.
He was a righteous man murdered by adulterers. The guilty passed upon
their judge the sentence of death. Moreover, the death of the Prophet
was the fee of a dancing-girl. And lastly, there was a feature about it
from which even savages shrink; the order for completing the atrocity
was given amid the merriment of a dinner-party. From banquet to prison,
from prison to banquet, that was the course run by the servants of the
murderer. How many horrors does this simple crime embrace within its
Who is there, that, on seeing the messenger hasten from the
dinner-table to the prison, would not have forthwith concluded that he
carried an order for the Prophet's release. If any one had heard that
it was Herod's birthday, and that he was giving a great feast, and that
he had offered a damsel the choice of whatever she listed, and that
thereupon a messenger had been sent to John's dungeon. If any one, I
say, had heard this, what would he have supposed? He would have
concluded that the damsel had asked and obtained John's freedom. What
have executions in common with dinners, or death with gaiety? While the
banquet was going on, the Prophet was hurried to death, by an order
from the reveller whom he had not troubled even by a prayer for
release. He was slain with the sword, and his head was served up in a
plate. This was the new dish demanded by a cruelty which the Feast had
been powerless to glut.
Look, savage King, look at a decoration which suiteth well with thy
banquet. Put out thine hand, so as to lose no part of the luxury of
cruelty, and let the streams of the sacred blood run between thy
fingers. Thine hunger the dinner hath been unable to satisfy, thy cups
have not been able to quench thine inhuman thirst. Suck, suck the blood
which the still palpitating veins are discharging from the place where
the neck has been severed. Look at the eyes. Even in death they remain
the eyes of a witness of thine uncleanness, but they are closing
themselves upon the spectacle of thy pleasures. Those eyes indeed are
shutting but it seems not so much from the laws of natural death, as
from horror at the scene of thine enjoyment. The golden mouth, whose
bloodless lips are silent now, can repeat no more the denunciation
which thou couldest not bear to hear, and still thou art afraid of it.
1 "Decollation" means "beheading."
However, "collation" means "a light meal." It's a word one sees often
in traditional Catholic literature, especially with regard to monastic
life (ex., a convent's schedule might include "6pm Vespers; 6:30
Collation"). So when I see the word "decollation" in reference to St.
John the Baptist, I can't help but picture a man wearing animal skins,
vomiting up locusts and honey. Sorry. But it's true, and kinda funny.
So there it is.