The Horror and Hope of Herod

This week, we remember the great faith of the saints, recalling their example of virtue and  desire to fully live the Gospel message.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

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On Saturday, August 29, we celebrate the Passion of John the Baptist. Despite our celebration, there is a great tragedy in the Baptist’s beheading. It is not, of course, a tragedy that he was beheaded. The death of Christ’s faithful is never tragic, as it leads to eternal life. We celebrate his death precisely because it bears witness — to the truth of marriage and, ultimately, to the One Who is Truth. The precursor of our Lord in all things, John announced our Lord’s death by his own martyrdom. And in dying for the truth of marriage he announced the true Bridegroom.

No, the tragedy is not in the one who was beheaded but in the one who did the beheading.  John’s death confirmed and consummated his integrity and holiness. Unfortunately, it also confirmed Herod’s weakness. It is Herod, the man with power, who fails tragically.

The Gospels refer to Herod as a king. He was technically tetrach of Galilee (cf. Lk 4:1) — the ruler of that portion of his father’s kingdom that the Romans allowed him. This Herod was not so cruel as Herod his father, who had once slaughtered innocent children in search of that one Child. The son seems dominated not by anger and wrath but by gluttony, lust, and human respect. We hear that Herod had imprisoned John, “on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. John had said to Herod:

“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mk 6:17-18).

Those few verses suggest an attachment to physical pleasure and a susceptibility to manipulation.  Herod liked having this woman and allowed her to exploit his power.

John had gotten himself imprisoned by his preaching. But for all that, he does not seem to have ceased preaching while in prison. He just had a smaller audience:

“Herod 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” (Mk 6:20).

He liked to listen to him…  Who knows how many times Herod sat and listened to the uncomfortable but appealing words of the Baptist.

Then at a banquet, in front of the pezzi grossi, Herod’s stepdaughter danced what most exegetes interpret as a lascivious dance. In return, and in a shameless bit of grandstanding, Herod promised her anything she desired. When she asked for the head of the Baptist, the king “was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her” (Mk 6:26). His own reputation meant more to him than a man’s life; human respect counted more than the Baptist’s head.

Every human heart is created for the truth. The heart’s longing for and recognition of the truth is a thing almost impossible to efface — even from a heart such as Herod’s. There was something within the king that responded, albeit weakly, to the Baptist’s words. He liked to listen to him…  Here, then, is the great tragedy: that Herod did not — could not — respond fully to his heart’s intuition for the truth. The chains of gluttony, lust, and human respect had wound themselves too tightly. He knew John to be righteous and holy. John’s words resonated within him. And yet Herod’s habits had been set. He could not resist the trajectory of his vices — and murdered an innocent man.

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Herod’s story is frighteningly apt for our times. In his weakness — in his pursuit of pleasure and human respect — Herod demeaned marriage and murdered the innocent. So also we  have hardened ourselves to the truth of marriage and likewise offer up the most innocent, the unborn. And like Herod, it is not so much that we approve of these evils; we may at times even be intrigued by and like to listen to the truth. It is, rather, that we allow human respect and  attachment to material things to keep us from what is right. As a society, to alter our course would cost too much…it would mean too much change and discomfort.

And yet, the account of Herod gives us this hope: When he heard John speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him. If that can be said of Herod, then we have reason to hope also for our society. Like John, the Church continues bearing witness to the truth, confident that it can find a hearing in every heart. The story ended sadly for John and even worse for Herod. But it need not have. Something within him responded to the truth. That same truth can even now purchase a hearing.

If our culture shares in Herod’s vices, we should take heart that it can also share in his every so slight openness to truth. On John the Baptist’s feast, then, let us ask him to intercede for us. May his prayers obtain for us the grace to proclaim the Gospel and for our hearers the grace to respond to that truth.

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