1 Thessalonians 3:7-13
For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Psalm 90:3-5, 12-14, 17
You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Today as a Church, we commemorate the Passion of John the Baptist. When Jesus himself spoke of his cousin, John, he said that no one greater was ever born of woman. John the Baptist’s life was first proclaimed by the angel Gabriel, as he was called from before his conception to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the prophet who would prepare the world for Christ. It is perhaps a little perplexing that John’s passion should go down the way it did. For so noble of a saint, so lofty of a prophet, and so holy of a man should not die at the hands of dancing girl, at the command of a king trying to avoid embarrassment at his own birthday party. But that is the way God allowed John the Baptist to be martyred. After proclaiming the coming of the Messiah and a baptism of repentance and then even pointing out the Lamb of God to his own disciples, John the Baptist’s last mission was to correct the king on his sexual misconduct. For this, he lost his head. It would seem as though he ended on a real low note.
And yet, though John remained in Herod’s prison, who was the person truly bound in the story? John might have lived in the prison for a time, but he was not restrained in his speech. He still had the king’s ear. And though Herodias desired to kill him, she was powerless against the king to do anything about it. She was free to listen to John as well, but she chose to remain bound by her grudge against him. Herodias’ daughter seems free, even privileged. After all, half of Herod’s kingdom was set at her feet when he made his oath. But far from a free woman, we instead see the daughter of Herodias bound to her mother, as though she were a mere extension of the queen, formed to do her mother’s will. And Herod, though he is king, though he is the one with the power to free John, to refuse Herodias’ daughter, and all the freedom to act in the way he sees as right, is instead prisoner of his own vanity and fears. Herod was afraid of how he would look to the people if he executed John. Herod was afraid of not looking man enough if he went back on his grandiose promise. Herod was afraid of following his own instincts, though he was struck with grief at the prospect of having John killed. And so, Herod, Herodias, and Herodias’ daughter all remain in bondage. Though they might have counted themselves as free in some respects, free from the law, free from morality, free from having the prophet point his finger at them, none of them are truly free. None of them have allowed themselves the freedom to live unapologetically according to their consciences like John the Baptist.
And so God uses John in this outrageous scene to prefigure the Passion of the Christ. He shows us that the only true freedom anyone can experience is freedom through the cross, to which John bears witness through his death. While the king remains bound by his extravagant oaths in his palace, the prophet sits in prison, free from himself, free from his desires, free from his vanity, free from wondering what people will think about him. While the queen remains in a tight spot, plotting how to destroy John and anyone who might shed light on what she has done, the prophet can rest with a clear conscience, knowing he has done no wrong but remained obedient to God. And while Herodias’ daughter hurries here and there, trying to carry out her mother’s will, the prophet can lay his life down, having conformed his will to that of God the Father. Indeed, the death of John the Baptist was a grief to those who executed him, which haunted Herod’s conscience thereafter, but it was a victory for John and all the holy prophets, and all those who have invested in life everlasting. Though John sat in prison and was killed, no one ever had power over his soul, his speech, or his allegiance. Not even the king could say the same thing.
As Christians, we are called to live unapologetically for God. We are called to carry our crosses, crucifying our vanity on it, giving no one sway over us. We are called, as the psalmist prays, to number our days, realizing that this life on earth will end, but eternity lays before us for those who belong to God. We are called to establish order in our emotions, so that like Paul in writing to the Thessalonians, we may be delighted by the growth of faith, unaffected by the passing carnal pleasures of earthly life. And so we are called today to examine those things we have not given over to God yet. Every fear, every bad attitude, every habit we cling to and do not surrender to God’s power ultimately takes power over us. Let us pray so that we may embrace true freedom, freedom through the cross of Christ. Let us ask for God’s grace to crucify those things that keep us from living totally by our consciences. Let us pray for the grace to live out that crucifixion with our lives. Let us ask God for his mercy on us, which is our true freedom. Saint John the Baptist, pray for us!