In today’s Gospel of the passion of Saint John the Baptist, we encounter a pitiable man: Herod.
On the one hand, even though John the Baptist rebuked Herod, Herod knew John “to be a righteous and holy man,” and “he liked to listen to him” (Mk 6:20). On the other hand, his wife, Herodias, wanted the man killed for denouncing their marriage. And so Herod compromises. Refusing to take a firm stance, he settles for the middle ground and has John arrested. It is a pitiable attempt to please Herodias while trying to keep his conscience clean.
The end of the Gospel passage reveals the full consequence of Herod’s lukewarmness. After Herodias’ daughter performs a dance at Herod’s birthday banquet, he promises to grant her anything she wants in his entire kingdom. At the prompting of her vicious mother, she requests the head of John the Baptist. Now Herod is faced with the decision he has been avoiding the whole time. Either he has to defend this holy and righteous man, or he has to give in to Herodias’ desire for blood. Fearing the consequence of not following through on the promise he made in front of his guests, he gives in and has John beheaded immediately.
Herod’s lack of conviction stands in stark contrast to this great saint whom we celebrate at Mass today. Unlike Herod, who was unwilling to defend a holy and righteous man because he was afraid of ruining his reputation, John the Baptist held firm to his conviction despite the consequences. He was not afraid to make it known that the marriage of Herod and Herodias was unlawful. He sat in prison for the truth. He died for the truth.
His perseverance in holding firm to the truth is indeed worthy of imitation. However, this is easier said than done, especially in cases where our commitment to the truth is tested by the trials or surprises that life brings. In these times of difficulty, we may be led to question whether all things are subject to divine providence. We might want to look up to heaven and exclaim, “Really? Really, God? Are you sure that you know what you’re doing?” But it is in these moments that we must imitate the courage of St. John the Baptist. In spite of life’s difficulties, we know that ultimately God has a plan, and that His plan is for our good.
A beautiful stained glass window in the chapel at the Dominican House of Studies helps to illustrate this ordinary human struggle. Less than one year after the Order of Preachers was confirmed by the Holy See, St. Dominic made a bold decision. Instead of keeping the brethren together to build a solid foundation in one city, he dispersed the friars throughout Europe. In the window’s depiction of this scene, some of the friars have their heads bowed while others are looking back at Dominic. Their confusion and fear is painfully evident. They just joined a new religious order, and now they’re being separated. St. Dominic’s decision is probably not the decision any of them were expecting, but they were obedient to him because of their trust in divine providence.
Like these early friars, we too have to make an act of faith that all this messiness is a part of God’s plan. As crazy as our lives seem at times, we must remind ourselves that God knows what He is doing. With St. John the Baptist as a model and intercessor, we pray for the grace to hold firm, in spite of difficulties, to our conviction of the truth—because it is the truth that will set us free.
Image: St. Dominic Disperses the Brethren, window in the chapel of the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.