The Passion of St. John the Baptist

SAINTS & ART: The Forerunner of Christ died because he defended the holiness of marriage.

Bartlomiej Strobel, “Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St. John the Baptist” (detail), ca. 1630-1633
Bartlomiej Strobel, “Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St. John the Baptist” (detail), ca. 1630-1633 (photo: Public Domain)

Tradition holds that today St. John the Baptist was beheaded. Today, we mark his martyrdom. The account of his murder is today’s Gospel: Mark 6:17-29.

St. John the Baptist was, of course, a key figure announcing the Advent of Jesus. He accompanies us through much of Advent. But his coming into and his leaving this world — his conception and death — are not just historical memories attached to his “preparing the way of the Lord.” They speak very directly to today.

John’s conception reminds us of a truth applicable to every child that comes into this world. Once upon a time, people spoke of pregnancy and childbirth as a “miracle” and a “blessed state.” In the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth who, because of her age “was thought to be sterile” (Luke 1:7, 36), it was miraculous. In the case of Jesus, conceived by Mary without loss of her virginity (Luke 1:31-35), it was even more so. But since no human being can create a soul but only contribute to the body which that soul animates, every child who enters this world is a miracle.

John greets Jesus even before either is born: “As soon as your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44) announces Elizabeth to Mary. That “clump of tissue” whom God knew in the womb even before he formed you (Jeremiah 1:5) proclaims Christ. Generations of Christians who read that passage and meditated on the Visitation thought about how John already acknowledges Jesus. It’s telling that, in our day, we have to read that passage so that even those who pretend to call themselves “Christian” pretend to deny the facts Mary and Elizabeth knew about prenatal life. 

If John’s entry into the world speaks to issues today, so does his exit. Fast forward some 30 years. John has been preaching a “baptism of repentance” along the River Jordan. He tailored his message to particular listeners. Tax collectors were told not to cheat (Luke 3:13). Those with more were told to share with those with less (3:11). Soldiers were told not to perjure or bully (3:14b). 

And the leader was told to respect marriage, specifically, not to sleep with his divorced sister-in-law (3:19). And for that, “Herod locked John up in prison” (Luke 3:20).

“Herod” is Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s three sons. Herod the Great, who tried to murder Jesus in his Infancy, had three boys who survived (he killed his wife and some children, too).  The Romans made the three boys “tetrarchs,” something like regional administrators. Herod Antipas ruled Galilee. We met him during Lent this year, because St. Luke mentions Pilate punting Jesus’s trial to him. 

John, who “spoke truth to power” before elites thought that fashionable, did not exclude the ruler from his moral critique. Herod clearly liked the ladies, including Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and her comely young daughter, Salome. Ambitious Herodias divorced Philip and Herod his wife, Phasaelis. John publicly charged Herod with immorality, since taking a living brother’s wife for one’s own was explicitly condemned in the Bible (Leviticus 20:21).

Rulers like to think they are above the law, especially God’s Law. So John wound up in prison.

As today’s Gospel tells us, Herod “liked to listen to” John, even though he was “perplexed” by his message. Herod was willing to listen, but not willing to follow through. He’s like the person who hears what the Church teaches, which bothers his conscience. But it doesn’t bother him enough to change what he’s doing, and sometimes it instead stirs up a counter-reaction against the teaching. Then, like now, this is especially true in the area of sex: confronted with Biblical and moral truth, the person of unquiet conscience pretends his conscience is at peace. He pretends that what has to change is not him or her but the teaching: the problem is the message and the messenger, not the behavior of its hearer.

John died because he defended the holiness of marriage. He died because “‘love’ is not love” and even marriage and sex are morally accountable categories. Because he demanded that the elite conform to God’s Law, not that the Law be tailored to their “choices” and “lifestyles,” he had to die. 

John’s message would generate just as much opposition today as it did in Herod’s time, because there are just as many people today who would deny the truth about marriage as there were back then. Maybe they don’t cut off your head anymore, but they certainly cut you off from social standing, jobs, advancement and freedom to express the truth.

Yep, John the Baptist would feel just about “at home” in the West as he did in the fortress of Machaerus, where tradition says he was beheaded.

The death of John is depicted by Silesian painter Bartholomeus Strobel (1591-c.1650). His “Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St. John the Baptist” dates from the early 1630s. This huge oil painting (9 feet by 30 feet) can be seen in Madrid’s Prado Museum. 

A “Silesian” artist? Strobel was born in what is today the southwestern Polish city of Wrocław (WROT-slaf). At various time in history, it was known as the German city of Breslau. 

The area between Wrocław and what is now the German border, stretching down to the Czech border, is known as “Lower Silesia” (Dolny Śląsk). It is an intriguing blend of Polish and German culture with its own indigenous elements, as I discovered from my priest-cousin, who’s been a pastor in that region for over 50 years. Father Józef Frąc who, like my family, comes from the mountain regions of southern Poland, joined the then-Archdiocese of Wrocław when he was ordained in 1964 because our native region was priest-rich and those areas of western Poland priest-poor. We toured many jewels of churches in that region together, which clearly exhibited the local culture bringing together Polish and German elements. It’s worth the visit, whether you’re in Poland or just go north from Prague.

Strobel worked throughout German areas until the outbreak of the Thirty Years War forced him to seek asylum in Poland: while Western Europeans were killing each other over religion, 17th-century Poland was “a state without stakes” — as historian Janusz Tazbir put it. Born a Protestant, Strobel died a Catholic convert.

It’s likely that “Feast of Herod” was commissioned by Polish King Władysław IV Vasa, who made Strobel a court painter. 

“Feast of Herod” is anachronistic. While the Gospels tell us that it was as a result of Salome’s dance during lustful Herod’s birthday party that he promised to give the girl anything she wanted (which was John’s head on a platter), this birthday party is clearly populated by Renaissance-style Salome, Herodias, Herod and partygoers. 

About a third of the way from the right is John’s head on a platter. Herod recoils backwards. I’m not sure which is Salome: the girl pointing to the head or the girl carrying the tray — one would doubt a royal stepdaughter would be handling platters. The number of guests looking outwards ensures the viewer sees John’s otherwise small head. 

The rest of John is on the far right. His headless torso lies on the ground, one woman lamenting him. An executioner seems to be leaning back, looking at another old woman who appears to have a wishbone in her hands. While the elites eat, drink and be merry in celebrating their “victory,” a much smaller group mourns the man who defended the truth. 

Commentators on the painting note that, in addition to the Biblical guests, one can also identify some political figures from the Central Europe of Strobel’s time.

The image at the top of this article is a detail of the right third of the work; the full painting can be seen here: 

Bartlomiej Strobel, “Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” ca. 1630-1633
Bartlomiej Strobel, “Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” ca. 1630-1633