Beheading of John the Baptist

Scripture Readings: Jer 1:17-19;  Mk 6:17-29

Today’s gospel is about our receptivity to Christ. It shows us a sharp contrast between two allegiances and concerns. Herod’s allegiance is to pleasures and his concern is with his standing in the eyes of others.  John the Baptist’s allegiance is to the coming kingdom of God and his concern is with the struggle to live toward that kingdom. He is focused on One Thing.

This contrast points to another contrast: that of vulnerability. Herod would be invulnerable; John is vulnerable.

Vulnerability is the capacity to expose oneself to the risk of being harmed. It is a type of openness.  One is open to being wounded … and thereby open to being healed … even saved. This affects our capacity to be receptive to Christ.With such openness one pays her dues for being a self.

Herod is partying; his heart is set on pleasure. His preference is for invulnerability. Vulnerability is to one’s environment. Exposing himself to the party environment means he can affect the events and be affected by the events. He had not anticipated Herodias’ request for the head of John, a man whom he “liked to listen to.”  Suddenly he was vulnerable. His openness to the dancing girl made him open to a wound and the wound made him open to the possibility of making a new choice. For a moment, he was open to conversion.

John the Baptist was also vulnerable. Invulnerability was not an option for him. He was open to the risk of being wounded and thereby open to the healing of the wound. His openness meant he accepted his mission to affect the environment and to be affected by it. Such acceptance gave him the ability Herod did not have: John had the ability to choose. Herod lacked this because he lacked a sense of any clear meaning in life.

John had this meaning in life. It was a relationship with the God and Father of Jesus Christ. While Herod sought the transitory approval of the party-goers and the dancing girl, John sought the eternal approval of the Father. Herod wanted to avoid the shame his guests might hold for him. Yet that very fear of shame was an aspiration to dignity, to be with the worthy and the honorable that he found in the one he liked to listen to.

The evangelist Mark is highlighting our vulnerability to being seen as socially attractive or unattractive, to approval and disapproval. These affect our receptivity to Christ.

Today’s memorial is called “The Passion of John the Baptist.” Passion begins by being affected by some reality other than self that overwhelms us. Its chief feature is suffering. We are its patients, not its masters. That means we don’t just undergo suffering, we allow it. This “letting be” is where vulnerability meets passion. It is precisely here in our receptivity to Christ, in our vulnerability to a wound that we are tempted to flee.

We try to protect ourselves by using rational control. This is the highly-esteemed technique of American culture. Receptivity, though, demands openness to the other on its own terms.

We see it in John the Baptist. He opened himself, gave himself to that which moved him in the depths of his heart. To give of oneself wholeheartedly is to devote oneself entirely to what one loves, to give oneself without reservation, without inhibition, and without restraint.

In the end, we must entrust ourselves to mystery. This effects our receptivity to Christ.