Today the Church celebrates the Passion of St. John the Baptist. A popular understanding of the word “passion” is taken to mean intense, romantic affection, but the word passion really means suffering, and suffering of an extreme kind.
The sufferings of John of Baptist were not just associated with his death, which was particularly brutal and cruel, but with his life. John’s mission set him against the great powers of his culture- those of temple, priesthood and king, and because of his opposition to these powers, his life was one of self-imposed exile, a life on the margins.
From his exile he cried out for the great powers to repent, and announced an end to their reign. God was coming into the world to set things right and with him would arrive a new temple, priesthood and kingdom. Of course, power is rarely surrendered willingly, and the powers of the old order set themselves in as fierce an opposition to John as he had placed himself in opposition to them.
The passion of John the Baptist was fueled by his love for God, a love that he understood to be most often resisted and refused. The great powers of the world were manipulators of the people’s affection for God and a distraction that prevented their conversion. John had no patience for their pomp and pretense and proclaimed that their only option was to repent before God revealed himself to the world. With the revelation of God, the world of the great powers was coming to an end, and if they were to have a place in God’s new world, they would have to change.
Christ would be the revelation that John longed for.
John also perceived correctly that behind the great powers of the world were fallen spiritual powers, sin, death and the devil. These were not powers with whom it was possible to negotiate. Those earthly powers that had aligned themselves with these dark powers would face along with those powers the full opposition of God. John believed that now was the time for earthly powers to extricate themselves from their relationship with the dark powers no matter the cost.
Many of the earthly powers considered that cost and refused to abandon their commitment to the dark powers much to the dismay of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist, burned with a passion that the world be set right, and grieved that so many would choose to be ruined, rather than changed.
Today’s Gospel provides the grisly details of the murder of John the Baptist. It is truly a tale of terror.
There are profound levels of meaning that are enveloped in the succinct description of the events leading to John’s death.
John is the prisoner of Herod, the son and namesake of the tyrant Herod who murdered the children of Bethlehem. Herod has imprisoned John because John insists that Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, is a sham and an affront to God’s law. John sees in this sham marriage a kind of elitism, which insists that the wealthy and powerful are not held bound by the standards of decency that bind everyone else. John has the audacity to proclaim this truth publically and for this reason he is imprisoned.
Herod, who as king should be the great driver of the events proves in reality to be merely a pawn of his own and other people’s desires. In fact, corrupting desires are the real movers of the events. These desires are infectious, and their corruption comes to its terrifying fulfillment in the request of the daughter (Herod’s niece) of Herod’s lover, (Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother) who asks her uncle for the head of John on a platter, a request that is has no motive other than to fulfill the vanity of the her mother, the awful Herodias.
Adding to this horror is a detail that is often missed (or ignored): The original language of the text, which is Greek, reveals that young girl who dances before Herod and his courtiers is not a sultry seductress, but a mere child. This makes the story all the more disturbing. A mother sends her little girl to perform a suggestive dance before her husband, the child’s uncle, in hopes of stirring up his perverse desires so that she can manipulate the situation to effect the murder of an innocent man.
Herodias is awful. Herod is despicable. The child is an unwitting accomplice in murder. Like I said, truly a tale of terror.
This story, which is as dramatic as the libretto for an opera, is a profound reflection on what happens when to serve our own corrupted desires, rather than God. It illuminates what happens when we try to use our willfulness to control and manipulate others. In these circumstances, the end always justifies the means, and the end is usually satisfying the desire for wealth, pleasure, power and honors.
Today’s Gospel is not just a tale of terror but a cautionary tale in regards to what happens when as a result of our desires, we abandon God’s will and seek instead the fulfillment of our own will.
When we are unreflective in our moral choices, enamored of our own egoism, caught up in the rapacious need to be admired or to get our own way- disaster will follow, and it will come not only for us, but also for all those around us.
When we connive and scheme to get our way, when the commandments of God are always met with an insistence that one is exempt or excused from responsibility, no one is safe, not even the innocent. In fact, it is the innocent who will suffer and the innocent who will die.
Attending to this story of the passion of John the Baptist we can understand better why he resisted the fallen powers of the world and so looked forward to the revelation of God who would come into this world to set things right.
What about our own passion to resist? What about our own passion for God to come into our own lives and set us right?