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St. John the Baptist: A martyr for the truth about marriage

Today’s liturgical commemoration demands the answer to a fundamental question: Have you accepted the challenge to be a long-distance runner for Christ?

"The Beheading of St. John the Baptist" (1869) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes []

Editor’s note: The following  homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on 29 August 2017, the memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.

Many years ago a play came out called “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” the point being that the life of such an athlete is unique and requires a certain style of personality and stamina. In Christian Tradition we frequently refer to John the Baptist, whose martyrdom we celebrate today, as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus. The New Testament makes much ado about the birth of John, with equal attention given to his death.

I think John receives the attention he does because, from the very beginning, he has been identified as an ideal disciple, even though we never officially discover if he did in fact become a disciple of Jesus; we just assume he did – and rightly so, I believe. What qualities did John possess which made him so perfect for the job? Qualities which all of us should possess if we are adequately to continue John’s tradition of bearing public witness to Jesus.

John put himself and his desires in line with God’s age-old plan and purpose. So often we balk at what God wants from us because it may mean a degree of inconvenience; John put aside such considerations and even willingly accepted the reputation of a madman because of his intense pursuit of God’s commands in his life and preaching. Secondly, John believed he had been called to perform a special task, a task that was a part of God’s eternal plan. John did not try to deny the call or thwart the implementation of the plan – he cooperated. The lesson for us, especially for young people in search of a meaningful life, should be obvious. Thirdly, John was a humble pointer, with the accent on “humble”. The sign of a truly great person is that one can recognize one who is yet greater – and that was surely John. He didn’t get taken up with all the attention that was lavished on him and thus forget his goal. He remembered that his mission was to point out the Messiah to others and then to let God take over from there. Finally, John was future-oriented. He looked to the past for guidance and inspiration for the present, but he always had one foot firmly planted in the future. If he hadn’t, he would have missed Jesus Who came to him out of the future, not the past.

In John, God was beginning to do a brand new thing. As the Collect for his nativity puts it, John was to “make ready a nation fit for Christ the Lord,” a people who knew the meaning of salvation and peace. This new thing was signified by the naming of the child who was to inaugurate this new era. The child’s naming process violated all principles of Jewish tradition for he is not named after any of his forefathers – he received a whole new identity. Secondly, his name means “gift of God,” and that is exactly what the name was and exactly what he was.

The whole John-event and all the characters in the drama as it gradually unfolds, stand as a model for us in our life of faith. So often, like Zechariah, we are dumb/speechless in the face of the really important questions in life – often because, like Zechariah again, we have not put ourselves in touch with God’s master plan and may have even set ourselves against it. Zechariah’s tongue was loosed when and only when he finally accepted the fact that God did know better.

Jesus needed John in order to make His debut 2000 years ago; He needs each one of us today. Did you ever think of that? If not, make it your business to introduce God and other people to each other. Realize, too, that the person at work or in college next to you may never really know Jesus unless you, like John, “go before the Lord to prepare His ways.”

The Gospel account of John’s beheading has all the makings of a modern soap opera. Herod is a dirty old man but is yet intrigued by John. Herodias is a vengeful scorned woman. Salome is a first-century porn star, using her physical assets to garner favor. All the immorality reaches its apex in the grisly decapitation of the prophet and the handing over of his head to Salome who, in turn, passes it off to a presumably satisfied Herodias.

It is significant that the prophet who straddles the Old and New Testaments should be a martyr for the truth about marriage. The Church, throughout her history, has always tenaciously proclaimed God’s plan for marriage. So faithful has she been on this score, that she preferred to lose the Church in England at the time of Henry VIII than acquiesce to a deformation of the divine will. In our time, we encounter assaults on the dignity of marriage from society-at-large and, even more sadly, from those within the very bosom of the Church who ought to know better and thus should be teaching unabashedly: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Divorce and remarriage, fornication, adultery, same-sex unions, pornography and artificial contraception – all these strike at the divinely intended identity of marriage. Our Catholic witness – as individuals and as a community – cannot be any less courageous than that of John the Baptist. Our Catholic voice cannot be any less loud and clear than the “voice of the one crying out in the wilderness.”

Following in the footsteps of John the Baptist means being willing to go through “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by being misunderstood and rejected and even getting your head chopped off, at least figuratively. But for those who have the stamina, the ecstasy of victory prods one on past the agony of defeat, and all becomes worthwhile. Through Baptism and Confirmation, you have been given the holy vocation of being a prophet in this particular time and place; through Baptism and Confirmation, you have also been given the grace to fulfill that mission.  Today’s liturgical commemoration demands the answer to a fundamental question: Have you accepted the challenge to be a long-distance runner for Christ?

The Collect for today sums it all up quite admirably and succinctly: “O God, who willed that Saint John the Baptist should go ahead of your Son both in his birth and in his death, grant that, as he died a Martyr for truth and justice, we, too, may fight hard for the confession of what you teach.” May it be so. Amen.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 146 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.


  1. An aside Fr Stravinskas for a fine commentary. Salome, “From an Aramaic name which was related to the Hebrew word שָׁלוֹם (shalom) meaning “peace”. According to the historian Josephus this was the name of the daughter of Herodias. In the New Testament, though a specific name is not given, it was a daughter of Herodias who danced for Herod and was rewarded with the head of John the Baptist, and thus Salome and the dancer have traditionally been equated” (Behind the A porn star with the name Peace according to Josephus. I’ve wondered whether the Salome at the Crucifixion was the same girl. From porn star to convert? Members of Herod’s household were converts. Joanna [wife of Chuza Herod’s Maitre d] mentioned in the gospels was healed by Jesus and later supported him and his disciples in their travels, one of the women who witnessed the resurrection. And think of Herod, “When John spoke he was deeply troubled, yet attracted by his words” (Mk 6). How close had many come to conversion? The Word has great power.

  2. St. John the Baptist would not be held in very high regard were he preaching today to Herod. Judging him, and condemning him, even assuming that his new marriage was sinful as he did instead of accompanying him, giving him communion etc. But that was his life then too. During his day, the leaders of the church no doubt wished he would be quiet and stop embarrassing them, while he preached the truth that they were ashamed of and gave example of humility somewhat more profound than just calling attention to his black shoes.

  3. Thank you Fr. Stravinskas for sharing a fine homily on a great witness to the truth – who gives witness to the Church here and now.

  4. [St. John the Baptist would not be held in very high regard were he preaching today to Herod. Judging him, and condemning him, even assuming that his new marriage was sinful as he did instead of accompanying him, giving him communion etc.]

    You know Pat, this sort of snideness on your part covertly directed against the pope is profoundly disrespectful. I am not surprised that it made it past the moderators here though because it seems the conservative subculture (of which sites like this are a part of) is so full of themselves and erroneously presumes that conservatism is Catholicism. They pay lip service to the pope but when it comes to actually being taught by him, well that’s not something they will do. And what is the term for someone who refuses to submit to actual teaching of the pope? Well to “unaccompany” you here, its schism.

    To apply the same standards to folks like you that you would apply indiscriminately to all divorced and remarried folks, you would not be able to receive communion either because schismatics are not supposed to receive communion. (And yes, make no mistake about it: refusal to submit to the teaching of the Supreme Pontiff is the very textbook definition of a schismatic.) Then again, I have come to see quite clearly that unfortunately there is no shortage of Pharisees amongst conservative minded folks such as you.

    Is that sufficiently “unaccompanied” for you, Pat?

    I am sure this comment will be flagged by the moderators because passive aggressive attacks against Pope Francis like yours are allowed to post but God forbid anyone give folks like you a taste of the exact same medicine you think others should get.

    • It was not a covert reference to the pope, it was an open reference to him. Clearly I think Pope Who am I to judge would have a problem with St John the Baptist, or St Thomas Moore, or probably any saint canonized before 1970. If that’s not the case, explain how St John’s ministry qualifies as ‘accompanying’ and not rigorist pharisaism.

      News flash – the pope is not God and he is not the second coming of Christ. His preaching and every utterance is not dogma simply because he said it. Schism comes from refusal to adhere to the faith, not the pope’s sermons. Sorry. But, by all means do continue to live in your happy-land, pretending that the whole thing isn’t falling down around you.

      • Pat,

        You do not get to make up your own rules and definitions. Here is how these terms are defined by the Church (emphasis is mine):

        Can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; ***schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him***

        When the Supreme Pontiff teaches on a matter pertaining to faith and morals and does so by a clear magisterial act and you refuse to give it proper assent, you are ipso facto refusing submission to the Supreme Pontiff and are thus schismatic.

        Kindly for the sake of your soul do not present yourself for communion until you confess this sin (cf. 1. Cor 11:27-29).

        • So if i’m sleeping with another guy, it’s alright to go to communion, but if i said that the pope shouldn’t give the impression that it’s alright to sleep with another guy it’s not. Brilliant!!!

          The pope doesn’t get to change faith or morality. If you think he can do so by talking to a reporter on a plane or issuing an ambiguous exhortation – then by all means let yourself go, see what happens.

          And how does that work anyway? The other apx 260 popes were all wrong? not merciful enough?

          Any time you want to explain how St. John’s condemnation of Herod’s living arrangement would fit in with the pope’s approach (which was the point after all) – please feel free to do so.

  5. The Church remembers the heroic but tragic death of John the Baptist. Ironically Our Lord said “no man born of woman was greater than John the Baptist”.. The reason is that man was created for the Glory of God. John the Baptist died because he challenged the sinful actions of the most powerful authority in Israel who had power over life and death. Herod openly violated the Holiness of God by taking possession of his brothers wife. John took the risk of exposing before Israel the evil of its highest ruler. John the Baptist could not allow this to happen. In Eternity he wears the crown of Martyrdom. I am sure that Herod had a different end. I encourage my brothers and sisters to take up the mantel of John the Baptist and in our own time to challenge the evils perpetrated by our Government officials. The risks are there because those in power wield military and legal power. Most Germans except a few like Maximillian Kolbe. Edith Stein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, kept quiet when Hitler murdered millions of Jews and they were all sent to the death camps but before God they occupy an exalted position. St. John the Baptist pray for us…

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