Shortly after he had baptized Jesus on the banks of the Jordan, John the Baptist had denounced Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, to his face.
For thirty years the dissolute ruler had indulged himself and his every whim, while holding court in his palace overlooking the Dead Sea. His latest crime: Herod had divorced his own wife and married Herodias, the wife of his elder brother Philip.
Tolerated by his Roman overlords and useful to them for their own purposes, the licentiousness and excess of the revelries he held were notorious and scandalous, and yet none dared to confront him for fear of the cruelty that lurked just below the surface of his unpredictable character. None dared to speak out. None, that is, until this John, known as the Baptist, and believed by many to be a prophet – if not indeed the Messiah.
In the same direct and fearless manner in which he censured the Jewish nation for the moral decadence into which it had fallen, and called sinners to repentance, John the Baptist spelled out clearly to Herod the evil he had done: “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
For proclaiming the truth, John was imprisoned. And yet Herod dared not take any further action against him. As is common with his kind, he was superstitious, and he knew him to be a “righteous man.” Moreover, John had for him an irresistible fascination. Who was this man? Herod’s anger gave way to curiosity. During the next four months, Herod’s visits to his prisoner began to have a strange affect on this master of revels. An irresistible awe gradually took possession of him, to be replaced by fear, which in turn gave place to respect. This did not go unnoticed by his courtiers, foremost among them, Herodias, and she bided her time, watchful for any opportunity that might be used, but impatient for John’s destruction.
A favorable occasion soon presented itself in the form of Herod’s birthday for which an elaborate banquet and lavish entertainment was to be laid on. His marriage to his brother’s wife and his arrest of John the Baptist had not been well received, though none but John dared to voice any open criticism. Thus, both Herod and Herodias took care that the celebrating and feasting should be more brilliant than usual, a luxurious affair that would purchase him the favor of his flatterers once again.
Influential and powerful officials, chiefs and magnates, from near and far, gathered at the palace – their differences dissolved round Herod’s loaded table. At a certain moment, well calculated for its affect, the succession of entertainers is replaced by a single dancer: Herodias’s daughter, Salome. Her performance so pleased Herod that, caught up by the adulation of the crowd, he promised her whatever she should ask for, even if it be half of his kingdom. Thus was the elaborate trap set, that having pronounced a rash oath before such an audience, his pride would not permit him to withdraw it cost him what it may. Upon asking her mother’s advice, Salome requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Although inwardly regretful, in his pride Herod could not refuse the request. As St. Augustine so aptly described what followed, “an oath rashly taken was criminally kept.” A guard was sent to behead John in prison. Thus, the “voice crying in the wilderness” was silenced. The head of the Precursor was placed on a platter and presented to Salome, who gave it to her mother.
John’s holiness was so evident that the Jews thought he might be the Messiah who had been promised, but John had protested and denied it. At the Jordan, John had pointed out Christ in person exclaiming: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world. This is he, of whom I said: After me there comes one, who is preferred before me: the latchet of whose sandal I am not worthy to loose.” And that there be no doubt as to Whom he meant: “And I saw, and I give testimony that this is the Son of God.”
From that moment onwards, an eclipse takes place: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” His mission was to announce the Messiah. Therefore, once the Lamb of God had arrived, the prophecy of St. John Baptist was fulfilled, and his public mission decreased as he headed toward his martyrdom. On the contrary, Our Lord would increase until the complete fulfillment of His divine mission. The humility of St. John the Baptist was rewarded.
After his martyrdom, his name was covered with glory. Our Lord said that no man born of woman was greater than he. It is impossible to have a higher praise or more honorable glorification. But this glory had as its foundation his most profound humility.