The Martyrdom of St John the Baptist

John the Baptist died a horrible death at the whim of a dictator. That fact alone makes him seem a very modern man, doesn’t it? But there was more to John than that, a side to him that is not so easy to accommodate to our times. He dared to confront evil and name it for what it was: ‘it is against the Law for you to have your brother Philip’s wife’. It is worth thinking about those words. How many clergy today would challenge a leading politician about his/her irregular marital situation? Wouldn’t we be more likely to say, it is no business of yours; steer clear of politics, and of the private life of individuals?

John’s criticism of Herod landed him in prison. Although that tells us something about Herod, it tells us even more about John. He was a man of great integrity, consumed with zeal for the holiness of the Lord’s name. That made him awkward, putting him everlastingly on the margin, yet many, including Herod, found him strangely attractive. He confused Herod, who had never encountered anyone remotely similar, and yet ‘he liked to listen to him’.

Those of us who like to think we are believers are challenged by John. His integrity, his zeal, his courage and his compassion are all to be emulated. However, we do him an injustice if we forget the central fact about him: his joy at the nearness of his God. Slogging away for God may be admirable in its way, but joy, sheer unbounded delight in God and the things of God, brings us much closer to understanding the mystery of the Kingdom and the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. John’s fiery personality was lit up by that joy. At the end, that was all there was. ‘He must increase while I must decrease.’

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