Herod was the one who had John the Baptist arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be a ighteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.
She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday, gave a banquet for his courtiers, his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee. Herodias' own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl, "Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you." He even swore many things to her, "I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the Baptist."
The girl hurried back to the king's presence and made her request, "I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist." The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her. So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head. He went off and beheaded him in the prison. He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl. The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
John the Baptist gives us a clear example of reactive cultural leadership. Facing the moral and legal misconduct of King Herod, he cannot remain silent. This of course triggers hostile reactions by those who stand accused. The literary drama of this episode lies in the two kinds of these reactions and how they interact.
Herodias is filled with hatred, she wants to silence the bothering voice of the prophet. The starkness of that anger suggests that she senses the danger of these righteous words. The truth is powerful. Be it that the public opinion may turn against her, be it that she fears that the truth might turn Herod’s favor away from her, be it that the prophet’s rebuke stirs her own conscience: Herodias fears the truth and seeks to silence it. She wants to defeat the truth, thinking that it is a threat to her happiness.
Herod fears the truth too. But instead of triggering violence, it intrigues him. He can see the beauty of virtue, can admire the heroism of the prophet, can probably even harbor the desire to be different himself. But he cannot change. He hears the accusation, he senses the compelling power of truth erupting into his life - and yet he cannot invite that truth in. Herod tries to incarcerate the truth, store it away, possess it without having to obey it.
These two reactions are patterns both for the cultural battle in our world and for the spiritual battle in our personal lives. When taking on the role of the prophet in our world, denouncing what is wrong and giving a voice to the truth, we will encounter both types of reactions. And when the truth knocks on the door of our personal struggles, suggesting that we change our conduct or so, we also will be tempted with both kinds of reactions.
The truth can neither be defeated nor incarcerated. Above all, the truth is no threat to our happiness. This needs to be a conviction at the base of an apostle of the Catholic worldview: Proclaiming Christ means to offer the true path to happiness. That claim will encounter fear in those who sense that Christ will take away things from them. But “Christ doesn't take anything and gives us everything.” John the Baptist knew that. His collaboration with the truth was not merely a purge of the wrongs of the world. His prophecy was inspired by the Truth which became flesh to encounter and redeem sinners. John's mission was to point to Jesus.
Jesus, I trust in You. Daily life tempts me to think that I myself am the only one providing for my happiness. Instead, I know that You are continuously crafting my path for greater joy and fulfilment. Nobody - not even I myself - can make me as happy as You can. Increase therefore my readiness to embrace Your truth always and everywhere. Take away my fear of change, let me overcome the constant temptation of knowing better than You, and send prophets of truth into my life who can redirect me when I'm mistaken. Lastly, Lord, send me to be such a voice myself. Not as a voice whose lack of charity is like sounding brass that extinguishes the smoldering wick, but as a collaborator of truth who seeks the true happiness of his fellowmen.