MAY 2020 Recollection: Beheading of John the Baptist
Translated by Fray Hubert Dunstan Decena, OAR
John the Baptist is not only the Precursor of the Lord, he is also the last prophet of the Old Testament or the first of the New Testament (cf. s. 293,2). His fiery words were announcing and denouncing. His diatribes against Herod brought him to prison, and even though the king himself respected him, he would be beheaded in the jail to satisfy Herodias’ desire for vengeance. John the Baptist had been sent to present the author of life and he himself will encounter death in the midst of a feast of wanton passions and drunkenness. Also today many, like Herod, are given over to different addictions and vices that serve entry to pathways of destruction and death. For this reason, this month we will reflect on addictions that destroy the human being.
Enter into yourself.
Let us prepare ourselves to live out this day of recollection. Let the Holy Spirit come to us, in order that we become conscious that Christ dwells in our hearts and that he is the life of our own soul.
Send us, O Lord you Holy Spirit. May he make us conscious that by faith Christ dwells in our hearts, in the interior man. Christ is the life of our hearts with which we always live from the beginning of our faith to the very end when we arrive at the vision. Grant that we may always live of your life and let us never be separated from it. We ask this Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (ep. 140,26 paraphrased).
Your voice is my joy.
With heart well disposed, with serenity, I read slowly the following words of the Gospel according to St. Mark, savoring them and allowing myself to be touched by them.
17 Herod 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. 18 John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. 20 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. 21 She 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. 22 Herodias’ 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.” 23 He even swore many things to her, “I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 The 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.” 26 The 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 prison. 28 He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl. The girl in turn gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. +
The Firmament of the Scriptures.
Of the three Synoptic Gospels, this narrative of Mark is more lively and rich in details. Luke scarcely makes an allusion to the death of John the Baptist (Lk. 3:19-20) and Matthew seems to schematically summarize the narrative of Mark (Mt. 14:13-22).
Many commentators of the Gospel of St. Mark opine that this narrative seems to refer to the epoch of Kings when the prophet Elijah had a conflict with Jezebel, wife of the weak King Ahab, who exerted effort to impose the cult of Baal and led her spouse to commit crimes like the murder of Naboth in order to take possession of his vineyard (1 Kgs. ch. 18-21). Some compare the weakness of Herod to that of Ahab, and the influence of Herodias to that of Jezebel.
Over and beyond these similarities that seem to actualize and see in the Old Testament similarities in the New [midrash], the narrative directs our attention to see how these personalities put themselves above the Law and the desire of Herod to please the whims of those around him and thus to impress others.
John the Baptist rebukes Herod that according to the Law he is not allowed to take the wife of his brother Philip (Mk. 6:18), causing the well-known disgust and hatred of Herodias.
One can read between the lines that Mark gives importance to the manipulation of Herodias over her daughter and towards King Herod himself that ends up in the beheading of John the Baptist. Behind the curtain is the form of how leaders of peoples make decisions according to their own interest and not in relation to the common good to protect the defenseless.
John the Baptist has no other weapon than the word to announce the imminent coming of the Messiah (Mk. 1:1-8). He is the messenger who has to prepare the way proclaiming a baptism of conversion for the forgiveness of sins and to fulfill his mission he is put into jail where he is found detained.
In the perspective of our reflection, in the light of the proposed text, it is worthwhile to consider our vision of the believers with respect to the political powers who do not always have healthy intentions for the people they govern. On the other hand, it is important to consider our prophetic mission in the light of the Gospel and the Word of God.
St. Augustine, among his works, does not make a complete commentary of the passage that interests us on this day of recollection. Nevertheless, there is a detail that calls his attention, and it is precisely the fact that John was beheaded in prison. The Bishop of Hippo points out that John the Baptist was humble including his manner of death, and with his death he had done honor to the words that he spoke, and which St. Augustine points out as a spiritual program of life: “He must increase and I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). In this way, John the Baptist decreased also physically in his martyrdom, since his head was cut off, while Christ was exalted on the Cross that he might be seen by all:
Let us diminish in the man, let us grow in God. Let us be humble in ourselves to be exalted in him. The mystery of such great reality was also accomplished in the passion of both. That the man be humble, John lost his head; that God be exalted, Christ was hanged from a tree (s. 289, 51).
As regards the abuse of alcohol, St. Augustine openly confesses that he was never a slave of this vice, but he was conscious that many who have fallen into alcoholism had been rehabilitated by the help of God’s grace:
I was never drunk, but I have known many drunkards made sober by you. Therefore, it was your work that they are not drunkards those who never were, and it is your work that those who were for some time, were not always so, and finally, it was your work that the one and the other know to whom to attribute it (conf. 10,45).
In Milan, before his conversion, a drunkard beggar made St. Augustine see the vanity of his aspirations, since he was seeking happiness by the way of glory, while the drunken beggar had achieved an ephemeral happiness with a few coins and a cheap bottle of wine (conf. 6,9). St. Monica was corrected by an elderly maid servant, and the witty word with which she qualified her (meribibulam=drunkard, conf. 9,18), helped her to avoid falling into the vice.
Alcoholism was a disgrace that had been introduced even inside the Church, where some justified their love for the drink disguising it as devotion. Thus, during the time of St. Augustine in North Africa, there was the detestable custom of eating and drinking in the tombs of the martyrs. These commemorative meals, and as a sign of venerating the specific saint, generally ended up in great drunkenness and drunken speeches, literally speaking. Thus St. Augustine intervened in his own diocese to abolish such custom, not only letting the alcohol lovers see how disgraceful was such custom, but also the lack of respect for the House of God in doing such drunkenness within the sacred precinct. Thus, St. Augustine pointed out that if Christ has expelled the vendors from the temple (Jn. 2:13-25), with greater reason would he expel from the Church those who come in to inebriate themselves.
I called their attention and I presented the problem of drunkenness. I myself read the whole chapter and added a discussion to show that with what greater motive and anger would the Lord have expelled from the temple the always obscene banquets and drunkenness, when he expelled the licit commerce of those who sold the victims which at that time were necessary for the traditional sacrifices. I ended asking what is more similar to a den of thieves, to sell what is necessary or to drink more than needed (ep. 29,3).
As he comments in ep. 29, after many days of battling with “the gluttons and drunkards” (ep. 29, 6),who were unwilling to abandon their customs of eating and drinking with the martyrs, St. Augustine succeeded to convince them and they stopped coming to Church to eat and drink with the martyrs, not without abundant tears shed moved by the words of the Bishop of Hippo.
Thus, I told them that if they despise the admonitions I gave and what I read to them, I trust in God that he would visit them with the cane and the whip and would not permit that they be condemned with this world. In this complaint of mine, I acted according to the spirit and ingenuity that our Tutor and Governor instilled, corresponding to the magnitude of the danger. It was not my tears that provoked theirs, and I must confess that as I was speaking, they started to weep and I could not control myself not to also weep. After weeping together, I ended my talk with the complete hope of the correction (ep. 29,7).
The cry of the poor.
The addiction is considered a chronic illness. It consists in the dependence that a person has to a substance, activity or relationship that gives him relief and/or pleasure. To the agreeable sensation is added the search for compensation. It is about a compulsive habit which a person cannot control. This compulsion usually affects the health of the person who has it and his daily life, because it creates problems in his relationships with family and his friends and the output in his job. When the addict goes out of his routine, he is overcome by the withdrawal syndrome with reactions like stress, anxiety, depression or insomnia.
The science of Psychology and Psychiatry distinguishes three types of addiction: addiction to a substance, addiction to a behavior, and emotional addiction to a person.
Addiction to a substance. It is a dependence that a person experiences towards a substance or chemical compound that gives him relief or satisfaction. Among these substances are cocaine, heroin, marijuana, ecstasy, the crystal, nicotine, and the alcohol. The drug provokes the massive liberation of neurotransmitters like the dopamine, that causes pleasure and relaxation. At the same time it has harmful consequences for the physical and mental health of the addict: neurochemical breakdown in motivation, memory and cognitive control, cardiovascular problems, respiratory problems, changes in mood, weakening of immune system, sexual dysfunction, pregnancy defects, antisocial behavior, isolation, anxiety, insomnia, stealing, having genital relationship to obtain the dosage, psychological disorders like schizophrenia, or paranoid disorder, overdose and death.
Addiction to a behavior. It is the dependence that a person experiences towards an activity or behavior that generates wellbeing. Among these addictions is gambling and pornography, addiction to videogames, to internet, social media, to cars, to food, to sports, to shopping, or to work. Gambling is hooked to a so called intermittent reinforcement, that is, it receives the desired recompense at reduced number of times, in such a way that the anticipation of the price hooks him into the game.
Addiction to a person. It is the dependence that a person experiences in relation to another. It is a relationship that is unstable and destructive through which the dependent person submits to, idealizes and extols the other. The dependent person is affected in his self-esteem and in his physical and/or mental health, nevertheless he is incapable of cutting off the relationship because he fears solitude and feels panic over the rupture. The emotional dependence has excessive need for affection and of being loved.
Testimony of an addict to pornography. I started to entertain pornography sporadically, the technology was not yet very advanced, or at least, not to my capacity. At home there was one computer, at least one and at the sight of everyone, and there were no smartphones. That would come in my twenty’s. Thus my consumption started with a magazine. With only thirteen years, I started looking at pornographic magazines, I bought some which I kept in my backpack and which I shared with my friends in school. That increased and from my seventeenth year until I was twenty the consumption became greater.
On my twenty-first there was an important stop, but I could not stop masturbating and at twenty-three I married. The marriage only emphasized the pain. This time, with all the advances in technology, I started to discover the world of pornography that I have not seen before: so many pages, each one distinct, very many videos each one more strange, extreme and exciting. There started the descending process in my life, from my twenty-third to my twenty-sixth the addiction went into a spiral each time more obscure, baser and harder. Little by little this world of pornography was changing my mind, my passions, my desires, my aspirations, my impulses, my way of viewing life. It changed everything.
It became an addiction that had transformed my way of seeing and looking at the world. I was another person, nothing of the man whom my wife married. I began to give it all my hours, many times a day, at work, upon waking up, upon going to bed, …; I combined it with another addiction, it hooked me to video games. It managed my time, to go to work and then to play and play, to see something interesting enough that can give me pleasure and feel a relief from this pain. I slept five hours a day, I was like a zombie. I stopped to spend time with my wife, I left having sexual relations with her. I was at the point of throwing overboard my life, all my dreams, all my ambitions, all my motivations, my happiness, my love, and knowing that someone loves me. In fact, I was losing all of them.
Yet in the midst of this disaster, there she was, my wife, the great super heroine in the history of my life. She noticed that something was wrong with me. Of course, I kept my composure with her; I made her see that I was a perfect man, without defects, without errors, a great Christian, intelligent and good… I had deceived her. Fully deceitful, I had not told her, and never have I come to confess to her that I had an addiction. Somehow I myself did not know. When she asked me if I patronized pornography, or if I used the Play Station while she was away, I always answered negatively; until I could no longer deny the evidence and I shouted asking for forgiveness. One and many more times I promised not to do it again, but one and many more times I go back doing it. I was tired, without strength and without hope that a change was possible, not for me. The decadence was every time greater and my wife who deeply loved me decided to stop the progress of the deterioration.
She sought help… and she found it in a friend, someone dedicated to help persons with this problem and whom I had known almost all my life. He had been an inspiration of my adolescence and I had always tried to please him, but at this time, he was to see me in the most shameful moment of my life. That friend took me in, helped me, counselled me, did everything he could muster, and in an act of love, advised me to go to a rehabilitation center.
Unfortunately, I had to reach the lowest and the darkest point of my life to become conscious that I had an addiction, that I had risked everything, my life, my job, my marriage, my dreams and my hopes, all of which can vanish in a moment. Pornography had ravaged me and I did not realize it because of pride. I discovered that when you are married, you are no longer alone. What you do does not affect you only but also your wife. I almost completely destroyed the life of my wife; I believe that in this whole process it was she who suffered the most. I was at the point of being unfaithful to her with another woman; when pornography leads you to an extreme, many times you end up seeking a prostitute. And it is there, I know not how, I stopped. I did not reach that point, I stopped at the border. But the wood borer had already consumed almost all of my life.
I lost my job, I lost my house, I lost my car, and I almost lost my wife; it is a long sad history where I sought how to end my life. I needed to enter a rehabilitation center, and there my pride flew away. It was the strongest and the deepest that I have ever lived, and yet it was there where the process ended. I cannot deny that God had an essential role in all this, yet even so, there were persons who had the capacity to help, to support, to be there, and they became authentic angels.
Today my wife and I are together; I came out of the center three years ago; our marriage, dreams and passions are restored. We now have a son who reminds us that we must not go through the same path again. Now we help other men, women and couples in the midst of terrible processes from which we ourselves came out one day… We are not alone! Don’t attempt to go it alone! I never made it, I attempted it many times, but I was not able to come out until I sought help. (www.daleunavuelta.org – 9 Oct.2019) +
Your commitment, your response.
Herod liked to listen to John the Baptist, but his words did not move him to change. What effect do the words of God and of your brothers have on you? Do you have an addiction from which you cannot come out?
Herodias hated John the Baptist for telling the truth. How do you react when someone tells you the truth? Do you harbor in your interior hate and rancor?
The head of John the Baptist was the payment for a dance that the daughter of Herodias performed in the midst of a worldly feast. From your viewpoint, what dangers are there in being a “prophet” and announce the word of God in the midst of hostility?
He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light… He was a lamp that burnt and shone… There existed the true light that illumined every man who comes into the world. John does not illumine every man, Christ does. John recognized that he was a lamp in order that the wind of pride might not put him out. A lamp can be lighted and be put out. At all times the Word of God cannot be put out, but the lamp, yes, it can be put out (s. 289,4). “He was not yet born and, leaping with joy in the womb, he already announced the birth of the Lord. Is there holiness more excellent than this? Imitate him” (s. 289, 5).+