In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ … But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. – (Mt. 3:1-2; 7-8)
The Nativity of John the Baptist commemorates the birth of one of the greatest and most mysterious of the saints. John, a cousin of Jesus, who first leapt in the womb at the approach of the Blessed Virgin Mary who carried the unborn Christ, later undertook a public ministry which laid the groundwork for the Messiah. His practice of proto-baptism was a type of the Sacramental baptism that was to come as the essential means of salvation for all mankind:
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Mt. 3:11-12)
John is an unmistakable figure; he towers with terrifying intensity, a holy flame of passion for God burning in his breast as he makes straight, according to the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “the way of the Lord.” His unequivocal call to repentance and warnings of eternal damnation are the sort of preaching that has become virtually extinct from Catholic pulpits. His camel hair tunic, nomadic desert life, and diet of locusts and wild honey only deepen our impression of his unmistakable character: a man who cared about nothing of this world, but only the things of God.
John’s apostolate reaches its apex and end in his baptism of Christ. It is at this time that Jesus begins His own public ministry, entering first into the desert to fast for forty days and face the temptations of the devil. When He emerges, it is to the news that John has been arrested by Herod, and so he is not numbered among the apostles Christ begins gathering to Himself at that time (Mt. 4:12). Christ no doubt bears His cousin’s suffering in mind as he warns those who follow Him:
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Mt. 10:16-22)
But for what offense was John shackled and chained? Was it his prophetic ministry? His preparation for the coming of Jesus? His unusual practice of penitential baptism in the Jordan river?
No. It was because he had confronted King Herod on his taking of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife: “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
In other words, he had told the king that adultery is wrong.
John was nothing if not courageous. One might surmise from the descriptions we read of his activity and demeanor that he was incapable of equivocating about the Faith. Which is why, on first glance, it appears odd that he proffers such an obvious question to Jesus about His identity and mission:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (Mt. 11:2-6)
It is not the case, however it may appear, that John was experiencing doubt about his Lord, whom he knew and loved so well. St. Jerome offers this explanation:
[H]e does not ask as being himself ignorant. But as the Savior asks where Lazarus is buried, in order that they who showed Him the sepulcher might be so far prepared for faith, and believe that the dead was verily raised again – so John, about to be put to death by Herod, sends his disciples to Christ, that by this opportunity of seeing His signs and wonders they might believe in Him, and so might learn through their master’s inquiry.
And in fact Christ says, after the messengers have departed,
‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! (Mt. 11:8-15)
Truly, John was a formidable man of God. Which is why Herodias knew that something had to be done about him.
Herodias preferred her illicit marriage to the King over her obligation to her lawful husband. But Herod had a certain fear and respect of his prisoner. He was unsure of what to do with him. He did not want John put to death, since as a man considered by the people to be a prophet such an act could incite civic unrest. Some scripture scholars have in fact asserted that Herod came to appreciate John’s counsel. But John, never the “reed shaken by the wind,” was unrelenting in his defense of virtue, and in his condemnation of Herod’s sins. As such, he posed a threat to Herodias, who had grown jealous of her new found status as a queen.
And so a plot was devised. Plied with wine, Herod was treated to a salacious performance by Salome, the daughter of Herodias and Philip. Draped in diaphanous garments, Salome engaged in a sensual dance before the king, and his passions were so inflamed that he offered her whatever she would ask, even if it be half his kingdom. Salome turned to her mother, who had put her to the lascivious task, but Herodias already had everything she wanted.
It was what what she didn’t want that was on her mind: the meddling of John the Baptist.
Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. (Mt. 14:8-12)
Most Christians have a basic familiarity with the story of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. Fewer realize the reasons behind it: like St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, John the Baptist died for his defense of the indissolubility of marriage and faithfulness to the Sixth Commandment.
And like the marriage debate currently underway within the Church, there was in St. John’s time a conflict between those who believed they should be able to indulge in adulterous marriages and yet still be accepted without a change of life, and those whom, as the saint admonished, should first “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Even now, in the spirit of lust and sacrilege that has intoxicated and darkened the minds of some of the Synod fathers, Salome dances, her siren’s song luring the apostolic successors now manning the Barque of Peter toward the peril of rocky shores.
As we observe the feast day of this great saint, we would do well to implore his intercession for our Catholic prelates who are faced with defending marriage against attacks not just from outside the Church, but from within. May God grant them the courage to follow in St. John’s footsteps, turning away from the seductions of our age and embracing the Truth of Christ, even unto death.
A version of this article was originally published on June 24, 2015. It has been updated.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.