The Passion of Saint John the Baptist

Happy feast day! Today is the feast day of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist.

Yes! We celebrate the day of St. John the Baptist’s martyrdom, which is written about in the bible. The gospel recounts…

NABRE

Mark 6

17Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. 18John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. 20Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous 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. 21She 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. 22Herodias’s 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.” 23He even swore [many things] to her, “I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25The 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.” 26The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her. 27 So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head. He went off and beheaded him in the prison. 28He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl. The girl in turn gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

…no, really, that’s the bible passage for the day. It’s incredible and gory and strange and horrifying all at the same time.

But trust me: it gets worse. See, this is another gospel account of this scene:

NABRE

Matthew 14

1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the reputation of Jesus 2and said to his servants, “This man is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him.”3 Now Herod had arrested John, bound [him], and put him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, 4 for John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 Although he wanted to kill him, he feared the people, for they regarded him as a prophet. 6But at a birthday celebration for Herod, the daughter of Herodias performed a dance before the guests and delighted Herod 7so much that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” 9The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests who were present, he ordered that it be given, 10and he had John beheaded in the prison. 11His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. 12His disciples came and took away the corpse and buried him; and they went and told Jesus.

So, basically. Herod is the stepfather and uncle to Salome (eek!), Herodias was his brother’s wife, but now is Herod’s wife, and basically Herodias has a huge grudge against St. John the Baptist because — surprise, surprise — he disapproved of their union.

As you can imagine, with a reading as graphic and intense as what you just read, there is quite a lot artwork depicting the event!

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio, c. 1610. National Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

Yes, there may only be three (four, if you count the head of St. John the Baptist) figures in this picture, but there is so much going on here!

First, you have Herod handing the head over on a platter, his fist clenching John the Baptist’s hair as he appears to lower it on the platter. He was never for the killing of St. John the Baptist. Indeed, he liked to listen to him speak, as the gospel recounts. In fact! Some biblical scholars speculate that the reason why Pilate handed over Jesus to Herod during the Passion of Christ was because of Herod’s penchant of being amused by these zealots of sorts. So, Pilate giving Jesus to Herod was probably so that it would save Jesus’s life. Which is why Jesus said nothing to Herod, which effectively bored Herod into returning Him to Pilate.

But I digress!

In this painting, his face is almost wistful as he lowers the head into the platter, which is being held by Salome. Mind you, it is not a weak face. Not at all! But it is wistful, as if he has some sort of lingering regret over losing the man whose head he is literally holding onto now.

The next interesting figure in this painting is Salome! Herodias’s daughter! Herod’s stepdaughter/ niece. And why is she interesting? Because of her disinterest! Look at her face! Her head is decidedly pointed away from the head of St. John the Baptist, with her eyes rolled off to the side so that there is no doubt that she is avoiding the whole grotesque scene. Of course, she can’t escape the whole scene entirely. Her hands hold the platter, and she will soon hold the weight of St. John the Baptist’s head, when Herod lowers it down again. There is no escaping from the weight of what she did! And yet, for now she does, avoiding looking at the face of the one whom she had killed.

Now, take a look at the older woman standing right next to her. That is Herodias, Salome’s mother! Herod’s wife! The former wife of Herod’s brother! The one who called for the head of St. John the Baptist in the first place! And why does she do this? Simple. Because St. John the Baptist disapproved of her marriage with Herod for a bunch of different reasons… mainly, she was originally his brother’s wife and also, in order to marry her, he had to divorce his other wife. And St. John the Baptist disapproved of this union.

…have I mentioned that the life of Herod is really overly dramatic? Because it really is. I mean, he was so excited to see his niece/ stepdaughter(!!!!) dancing that, in a probably drunken state, he promised her up to half his kingdom.

While her daughter avoids the look of the head entirely, she is utterly engrossed with it. She stares at it, her wrinkled face wrinkled even further with thought, her hands clasped at her breast. It almost looks like she is praying, but I doubt that. Instead, she is probably just expressing gratitude that the man who offended her is dead and that she may go on living in whatever way she cares to, without his input.

And then there’s the head of St. John the Baptist. The thing that unites all three of these people together.

Mind you, it shouldn’t be the thing that unites these three people together. Technically, Herod, Herodias, and Salome all have some sort of familial bond with each other, which should unite them, regardless of whom they have conspired to behead. And yet, what unites them?

St. John the Baptist’s head.

By the way, Jesus’s reaction to this whole thing?

NABRE

Matthew 14

13 When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.

Usually, that is code for Jesus going to pray by Himself. But, His plan doesn’t quite work because people find out where He is going, so they come to Him. So, He has compassion on them and heals and feeds them with more miracles.

After all, He must increase.

St. John’s the Baptist’s life was spent preparing the scene for Christ. His end, which was quite tragic and very much filled with drama, also, in a weird way, led others to Christ. And, as a saint, he continues to bring others to Christ. Including us!

Today, may we remember his life and be brought closer to Christ as well.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

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