Learning from the Martyrdom of John the Baptist

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist. Our Gospel reading for the day is St. Mark’s account of the beheading of John, a passage I’ve prayed with often and that most people are familiar with.

Herod knew John to be “a righteous and holy man.” Although he was perplexed by much of what John said, “he liked to listen to him.” He clearly was intrigued by John. And so when he is asked by Herodias’ daughter for the head of the Baptist, he is “deeply distressed.” He clearly feels great conflict when he hears her request. Nevertheless, he gives the girl what she asks for. Lust for the girl, the need to look good in front of his guests, pride – all combine into too large a temptation for Herod to avoid the evil act.

It is a frightening story. I don’t mean from John’s side, although I’m guessing he suffered an unpleasant death. Instead, I mean frightening in the sense that the story reminds us of the power of the forces that tempt people away from the path of light and love. Herod knew that killing John was wrong, but he did it anyway.

While none of us are going to face the temptation to behead another, this is a good passage to pray with. Looking at Herod we might reflect on when our pride, our need to look good in front of others, our desire for someone or something tempt us to act in ways that do not do honor to God. Actions that take us away from the path of light and love.

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