The Beheading of St. John Baptist
When St. John, the Baptist and Precursor of Jesus Christ, of whose miraculous birth we have spoken elsewhere, by divine admonition left the desert, he repaired to the river Jordan, to preach repentance, thus to prepare men for the recognition of the Messiah. The abuses and vices which had crept in among the Jews, and had become habitual with them, were rebuked by him without respect to persons. At that period there reigned in Judaea, King Herod, surnamed Antipas, a son of the Herod who murdered the Holy Innocents, and a brother of the Herod who clothed Christ with a white garment and derided Him. This King had forcibly carried off Herodias, the wife of his still living brother, Philip, and had married her. The whole country was scandalized at this criminal deed, but nobody dared to reproach the King for his unlawful conduct. St. John alone would not be silent.
The Gospel says, that Herod was much pleased with St. John’s preaching, and followed many of his instructions. Hence the Saint fearlessly approached the King and said to him: “It is not lawful for thee to take thy brother’s wife.” What more he may have said is not mentioned in the Gospel, but these few bold words were enough to provoke the King to such a degree, and awaken in him such hatred, that he resolved to rid himself of the severe preacher. Fearing, however, a revolt among the people, who greatly esteemed the Saint, he dared not immediately lay hands on him. The godless Herodias, who felt herself also offended by the reproaches of John, incited the King more and more against the holy man, until she had succeeded in raising him to such wrath, that he ordered him to be imprisoned.
The disciples of the Saint, however, went to him in the prison, and listened with avidity to his holy instructions. We know that he sent some of them to Christ, to ask Him: “Art thou he that is to come, or do we look for another? ” It is the opinion of the holy Fathers that St. John did not send this message to Christ because he doubted that He was the true Messiah, but that his disciples, by hearing Him preach, and by witnessing the miracles He performed, might more readily believe what he had told them of the Saviour. It is believed that the imprisonment of John took place in December and lasted until the month of August. Herod’s birthday was celebrated in this month, and among other festivities, he gave a splendid banquet, at which all the princes of Galilee were present. At the close of it, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, entered the banquet hall to entertain the guests by dancing.
The King was so much pleased with her that he told her that she might ask him a favor, and promised to grant it, even if it should cost him the half of his kingdom. This inconsiderate promise he confirmed by an oath. The frivolous dancer, not knowing what to request, asked the advice of her mother. The latter, who had long wished St. John out of her way, in order that nothing might disturb her in her criminal lust, said quickly: “Go and ask the head of John the Baptist.” The wicked daughter, returning to the King, said boldly: “Give me here in a dish, the head of John the Baptist.” The King was struck with horror at her unexpected demand; but not wishing to grieve her and being unwilling to break his rash oath, he sent a soldier of his body-guard into the prison to behead the Saint and bring his head in a dish.
The cruel and unjust order was forthwith executed, and the holy head was brought in a dish to Salome, who handed it to her wicked mother. St. Jerome relates that Herodias, to gratify her rage against the holy man, pricked his tongue with a bodkin, in revenge for the fearless reproofs it had given to the vices of the King. The disciples of St. John buried the holy body of their beloved master between the two prophets Eliseus and Abdias. The sacred head was buried by the unchaste Herodias in her palace, where it remained concealed many years, when it was discovered by an apparition of the Saint himself, and has ever since been greatly venerated by the Christians. At the present day it is kept at Rome, in the Church of St. Sylvester.
The justice of God did not leave the cruelty and tyranny of Herod unpunished. The Jewish historian, Josephus, relates that he lost honor and crown: for the King of Arabia, whose daughter, the lawful wife of Herod, had been repudiated, invaded his domains with his armies, and defeated him. The emperor Caligula afterwards banished him to Lyons in France. From that city he fled with Herodias into Spain, where both, in punishment for their crimes, died in misery. The frivolous and wicked daughter of Herodias also received her deserts. Whilst she was walking over a frozen river, the ice broke, and she sank to her neck in the water, and the ice, rushing again together, severed her head entirely from her body. Thus ended this audacious and shameless dancer.
I. St. John was cast innocently into prison, and after having been there for some time, he was decapitated; and during this time, the godless King Herod was sitting upon his throne, and the wicked Herodias and her daughter lived in joy and pleasure. Even at the present time, the life of many wicked persons is full of temporal comforts, while the pious often innocently suffer great trials. Some, observing this, are surprised, and even doubt the justice of God; but they error; for, God, Who knows best, permits or ordains all these things justly. He allows the pious to suffer, in order to increase their reward in heaven, or to give them an opportunity to atone, in this world, for the sins they have committed. To the wicked He gives temporal goods, to recompense them for the few good works they have done, and for which He cannot reward them in heaven because their works were done in a state of sin. Who, therefore, can reasonably murmur at the decrees of God? Who can doubt the justice of the Almighty, especially when we consider the fate of the pious and the wicked in eternity? St. John now gloriously reigns in heaven; Herod, Herodias, and the impudent dancer burn in hell. Thus will the pious, who suffer much upon this earth, if they bear their suffering patiently as St. John did, be eternally happy in heaven; while the godless will suffer eternally in hell. Hence behold and admire the justice of God, and never permit yourself to question His decrees. He is just and all His judgments are full of divine wisdom.
II. The impudent dance of Herodias’ daughter occasioned the beheading of John the Baptist. The Saint died, because Herod, pleased with her dance, had promised, under oath, to grant her whatever she might ask. Advised by her mother, she demanded the head of the holy forerunner of Christ, which the king gave her, believing that he was, by his oath, obliged to fulfill her request. By acting thus, he committed great wrong; for, nobody is bound to keep an oath which binds to sin. Still it remains true, that the dance was the cause of St. John’s death; and this gave a great many holy Fathers occasion to write against dancing. The summary of their lessons is as follows: Dancing in itself is no sin; but it is certain that dancing, as it is done in our time, leads to many sins, which are committed in thought, word and action, and often gives occasion to crimes deserving of hell.
Experience shows that many innocent persons have fallen into vice through dancing, or by only being present at dancing: vices of which they never would have become guilty, had they not seen and heard what they saw and heard at balls and parties. Hence, all the holy Fathers preached with severity against dancing, and exhorted all Christians to abstain from it. St. Chrysostom hesitated not to say, that the devil was the inventor of it, and was pleased to be among those who practiced it. “God did not give us our feet to dance, but to walk modestly,” are his words, ” the devil induces men to dance and dances with them.” St. Ephrem says: “Whence comes the dance? who has taught it to Christians? Truly, neither Peter, nor Paul, nor John, nor any man filled with the Spirit of God; but the hellish dragon!” “In the dance,” says St. Ambrose, “there is no modesty, no chastity; especially when done at night, it is a friend of vice. The daughter of an adulterous, like the daughter of Herodias, may dance: but whoever will live pure and chaste, must avoid it.” St. Charles Borromeo, among other pious directions, gives the following: “Dancing, so dangerous to Christian morals, should be banished entirely by the faithful, as it originates many sins against purity, and causes extravagances, evil deeds and assassinations.”
In like manner speak other holy Fathers and among the many Saints, whose lives I have studied, I have not found one holy dancer of either sex; but have often read that those who were addicted, for a time, to this dangerous amusement, repented of it greatly, and did severe penance. Neither have I found anywhere that dancing is recommended as a means for living a chaste and Christian life. I have never heard nor read, that anybody returned from dancing more pious, or that he received, on his death-bed, any comfort from the thought of those hours which he had spent in it. Often, however, have I read and heard the reverse. We need not speak of the chastisement which the Almighty has frequently inflicted for such frivolities in this world. Happy those who can say with the chaste Sarah: “I have kept my soul clean from all lust. Never have I joined with them that play, neither have I made myself a partaker with them that walk in lightness.” (Tob. Hi.) By those, “that walk in lightness,” are understood, according to St. Basil, the frivolous dancers.
On the subject of the inconsiderate oath of King Herod, dear reader, I have to give you a few words of instruction. It is most certain that Herod was not obliged to keep his oath; for, his oath was unlawful and wicked. To keep such an oath is wrong. Hence, those non-Catholics do wrong, who will not be converted to the true religion, because they think that they ought not to break the promise they made at their first communion, or at confirmation, but that they are bound to keep it. They took at that time, an oath to remain true to their religion, believing that the Protestant religion which they professed was the true one, consequently the oath rather obliges them to quit Protestantism and join the Catholic Church as soon as they become convinced that she alone is the true Church of Christ. To remain in heresy is sinful; whoever knowingly promises to do this, commits sin. But he sins still more by keeping this promise, when he is convinced of his error. Hence, he is not obliged to keep this promise or oath, more than he, who has made an oath, not to pardon his neighbor, or not to go to Church, is obliged to keep his promise or oath.
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.