Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Oil on canvas, 361 x 520 cm
Saint John Museum, La Valletta
We celebrated the birthday of St. John the Baptist on June 24; today we honor the anniversary of his martyrdom.
Shortly after he had baptized Jesus, John the Baptist began to denounce Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee. Herod had divorced his own wife and taken Herodias, the wife of his half- brother Philip and also his own niece. John the Baptist declared, “It is not lawful for you to have her,” so Herod threw him into prison.
Not only did Herod fear John and his disciples, he also knew him to be a righteous man, so he did not kill him. Herodias was determined to bring about John’s death. From prison John followed Jesus’s ministry, and sent messengers to question him (Luke 7:19-29). One day Herod gave an eloquent banquet to celebrate his birthday. His entire court was present as well as other powerful and influential Palestinians. Herodias’s daughter Salome so pleased Herod when she danced to entertain the company that he promised her whatever she would ask–even half of his kingdom. Salome asked her mother for counsel and was told to request the head of the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12).
Because of his pride Herod, though deeply sorry, could not decline the request; as St. Augustine said, “an oath rashly taken was criminally kept.” He sent a soldier of the guard to behead John in prison. Thus, the “voice crying in the wilderness” was silenced. The head was placed on a platter and taken to Salome, who gave it to her mother.
When John’s disciples heard what had happened, they took away his body and laid it in a tomb, where he was venerated in the 4th century.
The Greatness of St. John the Baptist
John’s holiness appears so great that the Jews come to ask him if he is the looked – for Christ. but he, forestalled as he is with divine favors, protests that he is but “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.
“The other prophets only saw the Messiah afar off; he points him out in person and in terms so clear that all sincere hearts understand them: “Behold the lamb of God,” behold the one who is the object of all the desires of the human race, because he takes away the sins of the world; Ecce Agnus Dei. You do not yet know him, although he is in the midst of you: Medius vestrum stetit quem vos nescitis; he is greater than I, for he was before me; he is so great that I am not even worthy to loose the latchet of his shoe; so great that “I saw the Spirit coming down as a dove from heaven, and he remained upon him…and I saw, and I gave testimony that this is the Son of God.
“What more has he yet to say? “He that comes from above, is above all. He who God has seen heard that he testified…he whom God has sent, speaks the words of God; for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The father loves the Son; and he has given all things into his hand. He that believed in the Son, has life everlasting; but he that not believes in the Son, shall not see life; but the wrath of God abides on him.
“These are the last words of the Precursor. By them he achieves his work of preparing souls to receive the Messiah. Indeed, when the Incarnate Word, who alone can speak the words from on high because he is ever in sinu Patris, begins his public mission as the Savior, John will disappear; he will no longer bear testimony to the Truth save with the shedding of his blood.
The Christ, whom he announced, has come at last; he is that Light unto which John bore testimony, and all those who believe in that Light have everlasting life. It is to Him alone that it must be said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
~ Blessed Columba Marmion, O.S.B.
Blessed Columba Marmion was abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous, Belgium.