Friday August 28, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist
Reading (Jeremiah 1:17-19) Gospel (St. Mark 6:17-29)
When we think about the irony of the story that we just heard in the Gospel reading, we have a young woman who comes in and performs a dance, a dance which is filled with sensuality and strikes to the very heart of the lust of the king and some of his guests, and thereby he offers her anything she wants. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of very many young women who would want the head of somebody on a platter when she is offered anything that she wants. She could have had jewels; she could have had wealth; she could have had whatever she wanted. Instead, she asks that somebody would be murdered and she wants the head on a platter.
It shows how skewed one’s thinking can become when one becomes totally embroiled in sin, when one is caught up only in oneself and no longer seeks the Will of God and no longer looks out for what is best, but only is interested in one’s own self-interest. That is where we get ourselves into all kinds of trouble. We are no longer able to think clearly. We make very, very foolish decisions and it is all about the self. Tragically, at the time, the devil is shrewd enough that these truly stupid decisions we make look like pretty good decisions to us until after it is finished and then we realize that that was really stupid. But somehow at the time we can actually be convinced that this would be a good thing for us, just like a young woman could be convinced that receiving somebody’s head on a platter would be a good idea.
Yet, if we look at this from the other side, here we have the man whom God had chosen to be the harbinger of Christ, to proclaim the coming of Our Lord into this world, to be the one who would set the stage for Our Lord’s public life by preparing the hearts of the people to receive the Lord. And now he also is going to lead Our Lord in death to prepare everybody for what is to come. If they would take the man who is “the greatest man born of woman” and they would kill him, then it is no big stretch to be able to think that they would kill God Himself, which is exactly what they did. Every prophet has to die in Jerusalem. They all did, and almost all of them were killed. And it is only afterwards that they proclaim them to be great prophets. Once again, one sees how, at the time, it looks like a good idea to put to death this person “who is driving us all crazy because he just keeps telling us that what we are doing is wrong. So if we make one more wrong choice and put him to death then we won’t have to hear him speak any longer.” The problem for them is that his death speaks more eloquently and much more loudly than anything that ever came out of his mouth, as profound as those things may have been. It is precisely this last witness to Our Lord which was his greatest, and for 2,000 years that witness has been speaking to us.
Now when we hear that first reading when Our Lord, speaking to Jeremiah, says to him that he will make him a pillar of iron and a wall of brass and a fortified city against the whole land, and He says, “They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord,” we might be tempted to look at that and say, “The Lord didn’t really deliver Jeremiah the way we think that He should. And He didn’t deliver John the Baptist either. After all, if God allows them to be killed, how can we say that God is delivering them?” The greatest deliverance of all is the one that delivers us from this life and gets us to Heaven. So I suspect that the day on which Saint John the Baptist was martyred was a day of great happiness for him – a great tragedy for the world, but a great happiness for the saint because it meant that he was freed from this world and from all that held him bound in this world and he was delivered. And so God has kept His promise – not always the way that we think God should keep His promise because we do not always understand what God meant when He said things.
But like Jeremiah, John the Baptist was indeed that fortified city, the pillar of brass, and the wall of iron. No one was able to prevail over him. No one was able to silence him. It did not matter that Herod put him in prison, he kept preaching. It did not matter that Herod had him put to death, he still preaches. That has not stopped and it will not stop. So today as we celebrate his martyrdom, just as we celebrated his birth back a few months ago, now we celebrate his birth into eternity. His birth in this world brought great rejoicing and people wondered who this child would be. His birth into eternity brings greater rejoicing because now we know who he is. And as he preceded Our Lord in death but had to wait to follow Jesus into Heaven, so now like the rest of the martyrs beneath the altar crying out in the Book of Revelation, he awaits the day of retribution when his blood will be made up for.
But he is also continuing to preach to us, to teach us about the courage we need to have to stand fast in the midst of a sinful society, in the midst of a society that has thrown itself headlong into sensuality, into lust, into selfishness, into all of the things that we see with Herod and his guests. And if it costs us our life in this world – praise God! – because it purchases for us eternal life with Jesus Christ and that is the only thing that matters. What a gift if God would deliver us from the present darkness and bring us into the fullness of light and life. That is what Saint John the Baptist had. Being locked up in a dungeon was probably a reminder to him of what it is like being in this world. And being freed from this world through death, he is able to glorify God in a way that he never could when he was alive in this world.
So it is a great day of rejoicing for him and for the Church. It is a day for us to reflect upon what he has done and who he is, and to prepare ourselves to follow his example so that we will be faithful to Our Lord in this world and we will be able to be with Him forever in the next.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.