On August 29 the Church celebrates the Beheading of John the Baptist. This is a most poignant feast for our time, in which God’s law concerning marriage is so often broken and ignored. St. John the Baptist was martyred for defending God’s law concerning marriage and this makes him a great example and help to all in our time who undertake the same joyful task.
The story of John’s beheading begins with the sinful and invalid marriage of Herod the Tetrarch with Herodias, the lawful wife of Herod’s brother, Philip. Herod had divorced his own wife, whose name was Phasaelis. Herod, therefore, had committed adultery in entering into “marriage” with Herodias; neither he nor Herodias were free to marry. How many Catholics and non-Catholics in our time have committed this same sin and live in this same situation!
John the Baptist is the biblical model for how the Church responds pastorally – with true love – to persons who contradict Jesus’s teaching that “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” Herod was quite fond of John and loved to hear him preach, more out of curiosity and admiration than out of a desire for the truth. John did not let this friendship with Herod compromise his love for God and so he told Herod and Herodias the plain truth of their situation: they were living in adultery and they had to separate if they wanted to stop offending God and avoid eternal damnation.
Herod was perplexed by John’s teaching because he was a weak man. We might imagine he was the kind of person who knows what the right thing is but lacks the moral courage to carry it out. Herodias, on the other hand, was full of malice and hated John. She wanted him dead because of his call to repentance. She saw him as the enemy of all her desires, especially for the power that comes with being the legal wife of the tetrarch. In her hatred for John, she prevailed upon Herod to imprison him.
Herod reluctantly kept John in captivity and we are told in the Gospel that he even continued to listen to John and confer with him. Herod’s moral weakness reached its nadir when, filled with lust after the performance of a dance by his niece, Salome, he promised her whatever she desired, even up to half of his kingdom. Salome conferred with her mother, Herodias, who convinced her to ask for the death of John the Baptist. And so it was that she returned to Herod to declare that her only request was the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
In this way, John the Baptist was beheaded out of hatred for the law of God concerning the indissolubility of marriage. He is our model and our hero in the struggle against this sin in our time. The Church also is hated for her preaching of God’s law concerning the indissolubility of marriage and the impossibility of “divorce and remarriage.” She turns to John, the Friend of the Bridegroom, on August 29 to learn from him how to endure joyfully to the end in fidelity to her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.