|(Pierre Puvis de Chavannes)|
Among those born of women, none have risen greater than John the Baptist, who was filled with the Holy Spirit in his sainted mother’s womb. None deserve to have universal side-chapels opposite the Virgin more than John, which would be a magnificent continuation of the ancient iconographic tradition of the Deësis. While the pre-ministerial years of Our Lord are shrouded in shadow, we know that he expressed a great affection for his cousin with many compliments:
“For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him.” (Mt. 21)
“He was a burning and a shining light, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.” (Jn. 5)
“The baptism of John, was it from Heaven, or from men?” (Mk. 11)
“Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” (Lk. 7)
“What went you out into the desert to see? a reed shaken with the wind? But what went you out to see? a man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are clothed in soft garments, are in the houses of kings. But what went you out to see? a prophet? yea I tell you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’” (Mt. 11)
One can easily imagine The Baptist in a desert place as a young man, preparing for the mission ahead of him. Like the later desert hermits, the Devil must have sent his craftiest lieutenants against him, perhaps wondering if his imperviousness to temptation meant he was the promised Messiah.
John was a martyr, but not for baptizing nor for prophesying the Christ. He was murdered for one simple, repeated declaration: “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.” God could have permitted John to live well into the new dispensation, to witness the Crucifixion and Pentecost, and to be finally martyred as a Prophet of the Risen Christ. Perhaps it was not fitting that John should outshine the Twelve, or perhaps it was most fitting that the prelapsarian tradition of marriage should be witnessed bloodily by a sinless man even as Jesus was reestablishing its pre-Mosaic form. The strumpet Salome was herself the product of a broken marriage, a fitting image of contemporary times.
Even long after his death, the bones of St. John produced so many miracles that Julian the Apostate began to burn and pulverize them before the remaining relics were rescued. Today his cult has been pulverized: his feast cheapened into a yearly bonfire party, when it is celebrated at all, and his relics called into question by thoughtless bishops.
“For Herod feared John, knowing him to be a just and holy man, and kept him. And when he heard him, did many things, and he heard him willingly.” (Mk. 6)
Centuries later, his namesake John Chrysostom would denounce the neo-pagan queen Aelia Eudoxia, who in her turn would depose and banish the bishop. “Again Herodias raves,” he preached, “again she is troubled; she dances again; and again desires to receive John’s head in a charger.” The golden-mouthed John would eventually die in exile from his bishopric.
“What peace? so long as the fornications of Jezabel thy mother, and her many sorceries are in their vigor.” (II Kg. 9)
Herod feared John, so did Herodias, and so should we.