Pray to be Less Like Herod and More Like John the Baptist

Aug. 29 is the Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist

Muqawir, or Machaerus, was the site of Herod’s palace where St. John the Baptist was imprisoned.
Muqawir, or Machaerus, was the site of Herod’s palace where St. John the Baptist was imprisoned. (photo: Photo credit: Marge Fenelon)

The martyrdom of St. John the Baptist — observed annually in the Catholic Church on August 29 — plays out like an episode from a modern day action-adventure series. Jealousy. Lust. Greed. Murder.

The difference is, it's for real.

Herod Antipas, the tetrach of Galilee during the Roman Empire, divorced his wife, Phasaelis, and unlawfully married Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I.

When John the Baptist reproached Herod for his sin, Herod imprisoned him in a cell carved into the side of a mountain fortress in what is now the Kingdom of Jordan. Atop the mountain was Herod's palace.

John the Baptist was imprisoned there for about two years when Herod held a large party during which Herodias' daughter, Salome, did a dance that enchanted the drunken Herod. In his stupor, the lust-filled Herod promised Salome anything she desired, up to half his kingdom.

Salome didn't know what to ask for.

She conferred with Herodias, who insisted she ask for the head of the Baptist on a platter. Salome went back to Herod and issued her request. Ironically, Herod had respect — and perhaps affection — for John, but didn't want to be embarrassed in front of his cronies.

So, he ordered the beheading of John the Baptist.

Talk about intrigue and suspense!

Before I saw Muqawir for myself, the story did seem somewhat remote, as if I were watching a TV show. Of course I understood it's import and appreciated its sacredness, but I didn't "feel" it the way I did while standing in the ruins of Herod's palace.

I tried to imagine that horrible night, with its drunken revelry and gluttonous feasting. I imagined the loud chattering and alluring music. I pictured the dancing Salome and smitten Herod, with the spiteful Herodias hovering nearby. And, I envisioned John the Baptist crouching in his damp, dark, miserable cell yards below.

But mostly, I imagined myself as Herod.

I wondered how many times I've thrown somebody under the bus just to save myself embarrassment. I don't think I do it as a matter of course — I certainly try not to — but I know I've done it on occasion.

I'm thinking about that again today as we mark the memorial of the Baptist's beheading.

Our Lord was genuinely grieved when he got word of his cousin’s doom. He was so sad, in fact, that he withdrew from his friends and followers and went to a deserted place to work out his feelings.

That shakes me.

Jesus loved his cousin, and so its understandable that John’s beheading was a bitter pill to swallow. But Jesus also loves all of the people I've ever beheaded, figuratively speaking, and that, too, is a bitter pill to swallow.

I hurt our Lord every time I metaphorically execute somebody else in order to protect my esteem.

Herodias mistakenly thought that she’d be able to hide her sins by doing away with John the Baptist. I don’t doubt that Herod thought similarly and so he kept John in prison so he didn't have to listen to further admonishment. What's more, he had the poor guy killed so others wouldn't think less of him.

Then look what happened.

Not only was their sin not hidden, but it ended up being revealed again and again generation after generation in the Gospels.

The worst part is that their sin was revealed to our Lord himself.

My sins, too, are revealed to our Lord.

God forbid — literally — that I do anything that would grieve him. And so today I pray that I may learn to be less and less like Herod and more and more like John the Baptist who stood up for what was right.

Even though it cost him his life.

This article originally appeared Aug. 29, 2016, at the Register.