Daily Reflection
August 29th, 2000
Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Theology Department
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Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, martyr - Memorial 
Jeremiah 1:17-19
Psalms 71:1-6, 15, 17
Mark 6:17-29

"Later, when his disciples heard about this, they came and carried his body away and laid it in a tomb."

(Mark 6:29)

In the Gospel of Mark, the bloody birthday party of Herod Antipas comes to us as a flashback.  In the part that comes just before this episode, Mark mentions the various popular speculations about Jesus as he began his wonder-working ministry.  Some people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead; others that he was Elijah come back, ten centuries after having lifted off in his fiery chariot (to announce the Messiah?).  Herod, it seems, was convinced of the first opinion:  that Jesus 
really was the baptist come back to haunt him.  Then, to help the reader understand why Herod might have such spooky thoughts, Mark flashes back to the time when Herod had John the Baptist beheaded.  As if he were some Hollywood screen writer, Mark proceeds to give us the tale of sex and violence in considerable detail.

Was this just a clever way to hold our interest?  Hardly.  Mark is helping us see the parallel between the beheading of the baptist and the execution of Jesus.  The statement at the end, "They came and took his body and laid it in a tomb," is enough to get us thinking of the parallel.  Then we begin to notice that both John and Jesus were executed by officials buckling under various social pressures.  Herod was yielding to a mix of the titillation of the dancing girl, the strong will of his wife, the need to look powerful in the sight of the Palestinian elite--all of this no doubt dipped in a solution of alcohol.  But, even more important, the king was happy to get rid of the prophet of God who had challenged his disobedience to the law of God, the commandment not to marry a relative.

Similarly, in the case of Jesus, the Roman prefect of Judea (Pilate) and key officials of the Jewish temple, motivated by what they 
perceived was a threat to good order at Passover time, collaborated to have another prophet of God put to death.

Both of these deaths remind us who claim to be disciples of Jesus that we, too, are called to act on conscience in public life.  In our time and place, that vocation rarely entails death, but it almost always involves a costly risk.  A relative of mine lost his job (in a firm he helped build!) because felt that, in conscience, he had to confront his boss about a policy he could not go along with.  Sometimes Christian life comes to that.  We need to find strength in the examples of the baptist and Jesus.

One rarely mentioned sign of a Christian community that is really flourishing is its readiness to support a person who becomes vulnerable as a "whistle-blower."  Not long ago, when a bishop urged workers in a nuclear weapons plant in his diocese to reflect on the moral complicity entailed in their work, he offered to support financially any worker who found that he or she needed, in conscience, to quit such work.  The story of Herod's bloody birthday party is not as exotic and irrelevant as we may at first think.

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