[Homily. First Friday. Feb. 4, 2022.]
On this First Friday, we have the story of the death of John the Baptist in our Gospel proclamation according to Mark. It is the story of an execution; it arises out of chilling circumstances.
The Death of John the Baptist at the Behest of Herodias
Because of the seductive dance of Salome, Herod Antipas promised her whatever she would ask for. She asked her mother, Herodias, what to ask for. Herodias urged, “the head of John he Baptist.” What her mother wished, Salome requested. Despite his distress at the unexpected request, Herod acceded. He ordered John the Baptist executed. His head was brought into the banquet hall on a platter and given to Salome. Salome gave it to her mother.
Why did Herodias hate John the Baptist so much? Because John the Baptist’s mission was to call people back to fidelity to the Law. Where the Law was breached, he called people to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). Herod’s marriage to Herodias violated the Law, for Herodias was the wife of Herod’s half-brother, Herod Boethius (not Philip, Mk 6:17).. “You shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife,” the Law said, “for that would be a disgrace to your brother” (Leviticus 18:16). Then, “If a man marries his brother’s wife and thus disgraces his brother, they shall be childless because of this incest” (Leviticus 20:21). Furthermore, Herodias was herself the daughter of Herod Antipas’ half-brother, Aristobulus; Herodias was not only Herod Antipas’ sister-in-law, she was also his niece. Hence, John the Baptist publicly denounced her marriage to Herod Antipas as both shameful and incestuous, a clear violation of the Law. His denunciations shamed her, and threatened her public stature and power as the Tetrarch’s wife. So Herodias exploited the seductive dance of Salome to vent her wrath on him. And to terminate him. Because of John the Baptist’s fidelity to his calling, he was executed, even though Herod Antipas himself saw no guilt in him. He died suffering for the sins of others.
John the Baptist Prefigures Jesus
On this First Friday, we may appreciate that John the Baptist prefigures Jesus, who would also in fidelity to his mission be put to death. When John the Baptist preached repentance, he called for a change of heart and conduct relative to the Old Law, most emphatically, the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments: “no strange gods before me,” no idolatry, no worshiping of images wrought in wood or metal, as was repeatedly demanded and repeatedly breached throughout the Old Testament, respect for parents, no killing, no stealing, no adultery, no lying, no coveting one’s neighbor’s wife, no coveting one’s neighbor’s goods. This was the message of all the Old Testament prophets, and John the Baptist was the greatest. He attracted many sinners, soldiers, government magistrates, tax collectors, pharisees, Sadducees, farmers, craftsmen, businessmen, and adulterers to the water of the Jordan. They all came knowing and repenting of their transgressions of the Law. It was to these that John preached and called to a baptism of water as a sign of repentance for sin and re-commitment to do God’s will.
But he said, “I am baptizing you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire” (Mt. 3:11)
Jesus’ Baptism by John as His Consent to His Mission
Suddenly “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him” (Mt. 3:14a). It was the same Jesus whom John had earlier pointed out, “He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:23). Already then, John was announcing, Jesus is the paschal Lamb, the sacrificial Lamb, to be offered towards the redemption of the world. So in response to Jesus asking him to be baptized, John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me? [But] Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Jn 3:14-15). “To fulfill all righteousness,” meaning: to carry out the righteous intentions, the redeeming will of the Father. Let the Father’s will be done.
So John baptized Jesus. In the Jordan, Jesus was numbered among sinners, immersed in their fellowship, declaring himself willing in love for the Father and in love for sinners to accomplish the will of God, to be the sacrificial Lamb of God, the Suffering Messiah, the Suffering Servant, through whose free sacrifice sins would be taken away. He would be “like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep before his shearers,” he would be silent and open not his mouth” (Is 53:7).
Jesus’ Own Baptism of Blood, A Baptism of Spirt and Fire of a New Covenant
Jesus’ own baptism would not just be John’s baptism of water, it would be a baptism of his own blood shed in love for the Father and in love for us. His baptism of freely-accepted death would be, in his being resurrected irreversibly, his baptism of freely-conferred eternal Life, Life he would confer on those who had faith in him through the Holy Spirit. His, therefore, was a baptism of the Holy Spirit, a baptism of love, a baptism of fire, the baptism of a new covenant, where Jesus’ body is “broken for us,” where his blood is “poured out for us” that, beholding him crucified (cf. Jn 3:14), his law of love be written indelibly in our hearts:
The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and of the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the Lord. But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer will they have to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the Lord. All, from the least to the greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more (Jer. 31: 31-34).
In response to Jesus’ free willingness for mission, his Fiat, “the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, the Father’s voice, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Mt.3:17). He was not just introducing Jesus to us as his Son. He was celebrating his Son’s free willingness to give himself in love for our salvation as he, the Father, willed. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life: (Jn 3:16). Later, before his passion and Death, Jesus agonizing would say, “Not my will, your will be done” (Lk 22:42b).
The Cost of Discipleship
The cost of John the Baptist’s fidelity to the Law was his head on a platter passed from a hardened executioner to a giddy daughter to a gloating mother in a banquet hall. The cost of Jesus’ fidelity to his Father loving us in his love was his Crucifixion, and blood and water flowing from his pierced side for us. The New Covenant is his Heart re-shaping our hearts irreversibly from the Cross, writing his New Law of love in our hearts indelibly, if only we might have a heart for him. Even when disheartened by illness, death, financial need, anxiety, violence, wars, threats of war and sin. His Heart to our heart, as long as we have a heart and accept the baptism not just of John but of Jesus.