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The Beheading of John the Baptist
(around the year 30)
I knew this was going to happen. Even so, I’m glad it happened sooner rather than later – it gives me a chance to arm you against vanity right at the beginning of your college career (I know you’ll thank me for this at graduation – whether or not I’m out of this infernal prison by then).
It’s a good sign that you are somewhat surprised by all the attention you are getting. That means that even though you are a very pretty young woman, you haven’t come to consider yourself the center of the universe (which is quite common among good-looking people, either male or female). And your puzzlement about how to handle all this attention is healthy as well. So far, so good. Resolving that state of puzzlement is where things get delicate. As you may remember, St Teresa of Avila used to say that humility is truth. So pretending to deny your beauty would be false humility – and living in falsehood is a bad thing. So that’s not the right path. What is the right path? I think we can find it in the drama surrounding today’s saint.
As you know, John the Baptizer was the greatest of prophets. He announced Christ’s arrival and prepared the Jews to welcome him. He was so respected and such a paragon of virtue that the people thought he himself was the Messiah. In him the Old Testament reached its culmination; only Jesus could go higher.
Like many great men of God, John courageously denounced public scandals. Herod, one of the rulers of Palestine at the time, had embroiled himself in a big one, seducing his half-brother’s wife (who also happened to be his niece) on a trip to Rome, and bringing her back to Galilee to become his own wife. When rulers go bad, it’s contagious, so John made a point of rebuking the petty tyrant. It got him thrown into prison (a miserable dungeon in the basement of an old castle by the Dead Sea), where Herod actually began to consult him on spiritual and moral issues. This made Herodias (that was his niece/sister-in-law/wife’s name) suspicious, and she plotted to have John executed. But Herod wouldn’t go that far. Then one day he threw a birthday party (for himself), to which he invited everyone that he wanted to impress – all his rivals, peers, and collaborators. The extravagant feast reached its climax with the dance of Salome, Herodias’s daughter (by her first marriage). So moved was Herod by the performance, that right then and there he publicly manifested his noble generosity by promising to give the young lady a gift of her choice (a rash oath, to say the least) as a reward for her dance. Conspiring with her mother, Salome asked for “the head of John the Baptist, on a plate.” Though reluctant to execute this obviously holy prophet, Herod was even more reluctant to become the laughing stock of his peers by not following through with his promise. And so, the great Precursor met his tragic death.
The Church has commemorated this event as long as it has been around, for the honor due to John, for its eloquence in speaking of the earthly drama of good vs. evil, and for the instructive example it gives of vanity’s destructive nature. Herod was too attached to what others thought of him. He based his self-worth on the petty, unpredictable, and inconstant opinions of his peers and his subjects. This led him to commit a horrible crime, to endanger his very soul.
There is the clue you were looking for. It is no sin to rejoice in the gifts that God has given you, including your beauty. And it is praiseworthy to find Christian ways to put that beauty at the service of Christ and his Kingdom. And the only way you will go wrong in all this is if you start thinking that your self-worth stems from others’ admiration for you. It may not seem too dangerous of a temptation right now, but believe me; it will prove to be so. So decide without delay that you are going to live seeking to please Christ above and before anyone else – after all, even the most amazing guy on campus can’t compare with Jesus.
Your loving uncle, Eddy