The Gospel tells us that John was beheaded. But what is particularly gruesome about John's martyrdom is not so much the death itself, but the evil that surrounds it. It begins with Herod unlawfully divorcing his wife and marrying his brother's wife. Because John the Baptist reproaches Herod for this, he is imprisoned.
Rebellion against God and right order never remain isolated. Rebellion insipidly inserts itself into every aspect of life and becomes a way of life. This picture is painted for us by the Gospels. Herod's house is rotting and deteriorating. We don't simply have Herod in an unlawful marriage. We have him imprisoning John the Baptist for speaking the truth. So, Herod's house is not only the home for lust, it is a prison where an honest man is prevented from publicly testifying to the truth. Herod's lust is accompanied by arrogance in that he not only rebels against the truth, but he thinks he has power to silence the truth.
But it doesn't end there. This place is seedy. Herod's home is filled with all of these drunkards who are all jockeying for position in Herod's House of Horrors. In the midst of this, the daughter of Herodias comes out and performs a dance for these drunkards. One gets a sense that she wasn't a ballet dancer or a tap dancer. Now that he's had her entertain the drunken guests, in his grandiosity he promises to give her whatever she wants. Upon her mother's advice, she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This is quite a charming little family. Soon, John is executed and his head is carried around the party on the appetizer platter.
The martyrdom of John the Baptist shows forth the sick and twisted things that happen when one gives himself over to rebellion against God's law. It rots everything. It rots the man from the inside and rots everything associated with him.
Sometimes, the martyrs are made to appear foolish. People mock them and make them appear weak and clueless. The people at Herod's party probably considered John the Baptist to be a fool. After all, he was the one who was in prison while they were having a good time. They were free to say whatever they wanted (as long as it didn't upset Herod) while John sat alone in a dark cell. And yet, we know that John the Baptist wasn't the fool. The fools were upstairs getting drunk, sucking up to a perverted king who has his step-daughter performing dances for drunken guests, and who has a man's head being carried around on a platter. The buffoonery of Herod's life was not true joy, but rather a pathetic and sinister imitation. The buffoonery of Herod's home was the clearest testimony that these persons were not happy. The buffoonery masked a deep and insipid hatred for the truth. They were laughing all the way to their own destruction.
Recently I had an interesting experience for which I am grateful. Usually, I find that persons who engage me in moral and philosophical debates do so out of a search for truth. While we might disagree on certain matters, I usually find the discussion is sincere and thoughtful. But recently I engaged in a debate where it was entirely clear that the Christian position on anything was entirely dismissed, mocked, and hated simply because it was Christian. The arguments themselves were not debated. There was no engagement on the level of philosophical principles or ethical standards. Instead, the goal was simply to mock Christians and to dismiss anything a Christian might say not based on any objective facts, but on the basis that the one saying it was a Christian. I found this fascinating.
The reason I was struck by this is because I realized how difficult it must be for many Christians in the world today. I spend most of my life dealing with believers or at least non-believers who are respectful in their intellectual dialogue. This experience made me realize how it might be for many of my parishioners. These men and women who are students, doctors, attorneys, teachers, tradesmen etc must confront on a daily basis the mockery of their beliefs. I bet people try to silence them for their beliefs. Granted, they are not imprisoned, but I bet they are treated like fools, dismissed as religious zealots, and suffer isolation. If they disagree with the predominant culture, they are categorized as "haters" and as lacking intelligence. Their opponents won't engage them in true discussions about philosophical and ethical principles. Instead, their opponents will simply imprison them not in cells with walls, but in cells of small-minded, bigotted stereotypes. And if you mingle bigotry with a little buffoonery, it can seem like its all good fun. John the Baptist's head on a platter all seemed like good fun too.
For two thousand years, the Church has taken quite seriously the witness of those who have shed their blood for the Faith. It does so in order to encourage the rest of us to remain steadfast and unwavering. It could seem like John the Baptist was the one rotting away in prison. If only he would have stopped speaking the truth, he could have been released and maybe his body would have been invited to the dinner party upstairs along with his head. But it was not John who was rotting away. The memory of John the Baptist's witness continues to spur Christians on in their fidelity to Christ and to the Truth.
Today there are Christians who perhaps feel excluded and mocked because of their fidelity to Christ. Perhaps they can hear the music and the laughing in the distance and are tempted to give up what seems to be a pointless and fruitless fidelity to the Truth and to Christ in order to get on the invitation list. Today's feast should encourage you. John the Baptist was willing to die for the Truth. The sickos upstairs were willing to murder in order to justify their vices.
The next time you are feel imprisoned and mocked for being a Christian, rejoice and be glad. Things could be a lot worse. You could be part of Herod's household of buffoonery, laughing away as the bloody head of a righteous man is passed around.