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The Beheading of John the Baptist
(around the year 30)
Your most recent note betrayed you. Though you claim to be “off to a downright peachy start” as sophomore year commences, I can tell that your electronic grin is nothing but a fake smile. Don’t be afraid, my dear nephew; sophomore slump really happens (that’s why the term exists). But you can use it to your advantage, if you take a lesson from today’s feast.
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.
As all 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’ 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 the 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, and for its eloquence in speaking of the earthly drama of good vs. evil. And therein lies the lesson for you. Sophomore slump comes because you’re still trying to live off the superficial excitement of college culture – but that excitement has dwindled considerably since your first year. Therefore, now is the moment when you have to decide who you are going to please. If, like John the Baptist, you make it your goal to please God above everyone else (including yourself) you will discover reserves of energy and enthusiasm that you never dreamed of. But if you fall into Herod’s trap, pursuing personal whims and pleasures along with acceptance and popularity with the in crowd, you’ll spin yourself a sticky, regrettable web. The choice is yours, and I’ll be praying that you make it well.
God bless, Uncle Eddy