Fighting Hard like St. John the Baptist in Confessing the Truth, Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, August 29, 2017

Fr Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Memorial of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist
August 29, 2017
1 Thess 2:1-8, Ps 139, Mk 6:17-29


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today we celebrate the final way by which St. John the Baptist made straight the paths of the Lord. He had been his precursor in birth, making a joy-filled in utero proclamation of Christ’s presence. He was his forerunner in preaching the message of conversion, with the Word made flesh eventually echoing what the “Voice of One crying out in the wilderness” was crying out: repent, change your ways, have a revolution in your conduct. He was his predecessor in the work of baptizing, showing in a non-sacramental anticipation what Christ himself would sacramentally institute, do and send his Church to continue to do to the ends of the earth and the end of time. And today we mark how he was his precursor in imprisonment, death and in a vague sense his resurrection, with Herod saying of Jesus the very words that the angels at the tomb would say, “He has been raised from the dead,” applying them to Jesus whom he viewed in the paranoia coming from a guilty conscience as John the Baptist redivivus. Tertullian said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of future Christians, and the blood of this protomartyr was what prepared the way for Christ’s own martyrdom and the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the apostles, and so many others after Christ. Christ himself made that link after the Transfiguration, when Peter, James and John asked him about whether Elijah whom they had just seen speaking to Jesus would precede Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus replied, “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands” (Mt 17:12). So we need to look at John the Baptist’s martyrdom in a Christological key and in a Christian key, because all of his actions point to Christ and insofar as our actions are meant to flow from our following and our union with Christ, John’s actions also implicate us just as much as they implicated Herod, Herodias, Salome and all Herod’s courtiers, military officials and the leading figures of Galilee.
  • In today’s first reading, taken from Tuesday of the 21st Week in Ordinary Time (Year I), St. Paul writes about his own preaching with words that are likewise apt for St. John the Baptist and for all of us called by baptism and strengthened by confirmation to give witness to the truth. St. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “After we had suffered and been insolently treated, as you know, in Philippi,” where he was beaten and imprisoned before God freed him in an earthquake to bring to faith his jailor and the jailor’s whole family, “we drew courage through our God to speak to you the Gospel of God with much struggle. Our exhortation was not from delusion or impure motives, nor did it work through deception. But as we were judged worthy by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, that is how we speak, not as trying to please men, but rather God, who judges our hearts. Nor, indeed, did we ever appear with flattering speech, as you know, or with a pretext for greed–God is witness– nor did we seek praise from men, either from you or from others, although we were able to impose our weight as Apostles of Christ. … With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” St. John the Baptist as the precursor shared what was necessary to open room for the Gospel, calling people to repent and make straight the ways for God. He spoke without deluding, impurity, deception, flattering speech or a desire for greed. He spoke not trying to please men but God, and didn’t seek to impose his weight as the greatest of all born of women and the most important of all the prophets. He was willing to give his life for what he announcing, calling Herod and all those around him to conversion, and being willing to die in witness to the truth. At the beginning of Mass today, we begged God the Father to give us the same courage, motivation and perseverance for our sharing the truth with others: “O God,” we prayed, “who willed that Saint John the Baptist should go ahead of your Son both in his birth and in his death, grant that as he died a Martyr for truth and justice, we, too, may fight hard for the confession of what you teach.” That truth, in all its simplicity, was to conversion and holiness, for us to point to Jesus as the “Lamb of God who had come to take away the sins of the world,” as one who had come, like John, to give his life in witness to that truth and by that truth set us free from sin, from living a lie, from the father of lies (the devil) and ultimately from hell.
  • The martyrdom of the Friend of the Bridegroom happened because he pointed out the truth about Herod and Herodias’ putative marriage: John was trying to prepare even Herod and Herodias through conversion for the real love they were seeking down a dead end: to marry the true Bridegroom. What John preached by his suffering and death was a foretelling of what Jesus himself would do out of love for the Bride. John had reminded Herod Antipas that it was not lawful for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife. The book of Leviticus had said clearly, “You shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife, for that would be a disgrace to your brother” (Lev 18:16). Herod had gone to Rome to visit his brother and while there seduced his sister-in-law, persuaded her to leave his brother, divorced his own wife and married her. To make the incestuous matters worse, Herodias was Philip’s and Herod’s niece as well. For all these reasons it was not right for Herod to have Herodias as his wife. With a string of violent verbs, the evangelist tells us that Herod had John arrested, bound, and imprisoned. He wanted to kill him, St. Matthew tells us, but he feared the people. And Herodias absolutely wanted him dead and was constantly looking to kill him. Eventually Herod would kill him when his vindictive bride pimped her princess daughter to do a striptease before her step-father and uncle and all his drunken courtiers to seduce him into vowing to give her anything she wanted. It was an incredible promise and Salome would ask for far more than half his kingdom. She would ask for his soul. She would ask for him to murder an innocent man. As Jesus himself would ask later, “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mt 16:26), and Salome was asking him to surrender his conscience and bring John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod gave the command. He had already refused to convert upon listening to John. Though troubled, he didn’t act. He put his own desires above the law, above conscience, about God, as had Herodias. And we can imagine to the Aramaic tune of Happy Birthday to You, the soldiers brought in, instead of birthday cake, the Baptist’s severed head and presented it to this lustful, power-hungry, self-important little assassin. But while that day was a tragedy for Herod and all those participating in his Satanic liturgy where lust ruled instead of sacrificial love, where immoral oaths dominated over the truth, it was a triumph for John the Baptist, in essence, his spiritual birthday in which he was born into eternity and we believe leaped for joy again.
  • John the Baptist’s whole life was a witness to Christ Crucified, to the Lamb of God who takes away sins, to the love of the Bridegroom who would lay down his life to save his Bride’s. He tried to get the Bride ready to receive the love of the Bridegroom. His whole life was directed toward Christ and toward this mission, a mission he was willing to decrease in fulfilling so that Christ would increase to become all in all. His life is a challenge for our own, for us to examine whether we’re really living in a way in which we point to Christ, whether we are living for him and dying for him, whether we seek to give voice to his Word, pointing him out, bringing others to him, helping others receive his love. In a special way, in today’s confusion concerning the truth about marriage, family, love, sexuality and even what it means to be a man or woman, it’s key for us to ponder John’s triumphant death today, his willingness courageously to announce the truth  without deluding, impurity, deception, flattering speech or a desire for gain, to speak and live seeking to please God rather than men, to give ourselves along with the message, even if suffering and death be required, to fight hard for the confession of the truth God has revealed to us. We, like John, will encounter many whose consciences are deadened, who will seek to do to us what was done to John and to Jesus so that they don’t hear the maternal words calling them conversion and holiness, and we need to be ready for it, just as John and Jesus were, for as we see on this day, if we die it witness to Christ that message will never stop echoing until Christ comes again.
  • The Mass, in which John the Baptist’s words echo until the end of time indicating to us the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is where we become one with the Word we announce. This is where we receive the Body and Blood of the Bridegroom in the one-flesh and even one-Spirit consummation of his spousal union with the Bride. This is where we decrease so that he may increase. This is where we are strengthened to become martyrs, witnesses, to Christ. This is where we’re learn how to give our lives for the truth and together with the Truth, for justice for God and others. This is where we receive something far more valuable than even 100 kingdoms of Herod!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 1 THES 2:1-8

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters,
that our reception among you was not without effect.
Rather, after we had suffered and been insolently treated,
as you know, in Philippi,
we drew courage through our God
to speak to you the Gospel of God with much struggle.
Our exhortation was not from delusion or impure motives,
nor did it work through deception.
But as we were judged worthy by God to be entrusted with the Gospel,
that is how we speak,
not as trying to please men,
but rather God, who judges our hearts.
Nor, indeed, did we ever appear with flattering speech, as you know,
or with a pretext for greed–God is witness–
nor did we seek praise from men,
either from you or from others,
although we were able to impose our weight as Apostles of Christ.
Rather, we were gentle among you,
as a nursing mother cares for her children.
With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well,
so dearly beloved had you become to us.

Responsorial Psalm PS 139:1-3, 4-6

R. (1) You have searched me and you know me, Lord.
O LORD, you have probed me and you know me;
you know when I sit and when I stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
My journeys and my rest you scrutinize,
with all my ways you are familiar.
R. You have searched me and you know me, Lord.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know the whole of it.
Behind me and before, you hem me in
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
too lofty for me to attain.
R. You have searched me and you know me, Lord.

Alleluia MT 5:10

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MK 6:17-29

Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison
on account of Herodias,
the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod,
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him
and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man,
and kept him in custody.
When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed,
yet he liked to listen to him.
She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday,
gave a banquet for his courtiers,
his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.
Herodias’ own daughter came in
and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl,
“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her,
“I will grant you whatever you ask of me,
even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request,
“I want you to give me at once
on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed,
but because of his oaths and the guests
he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders
to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it,
they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.