29 August [Death of John the Baptist]
Herod had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
John was a child of the desert and of the wild open spaces. To imprison him in the dark dungeons of Machaerus must have been for him the last refinement of torture. But he was a man who preferred death to falsehood. Jesus, who was his cousin, said of him (equivalently) that he was the greatest man who ever lived. It was a sad irony that such a man should meet his death because of the whim of a drunken tyrant, Herod. “Power gradually extirpates from the mind every humane and gentle virtue,” wrote Edmund Burke. From the mind of the tyrant, yes, but not from the mind of the human race. Here are we today – thousands of years later and thousands of miles away – remembering the greatness of John the Baptist!
John the Baptist was Herod’s bad conscience; that is why he thought John had come back from the dead; bad conscience is always sending us ghosts from the past, incidents that refuse to die. Jesus and John were cousins, and there is a tradition that they looked alike. This would give fodder to Herod’s addled conscience. A bad conscience feeds on everything and grows worse.
Herod was a weak man, but all the more cruel for that. Rather than face his own falsity he killed the man who pointed it out to him. Still, inside every bad conscience there is a scrap of good conscience: otherwise we wouldn't suffer from bad conscience. To know a bad conscience as bad is surely good. He died in exile from his kingdom, in the company of Herodias. They had ruined each other’s lives. No one knows if their bad consciences grew still worse, ruining each other to the very end; or if the hidden scraps of good conscience were able to reach the surface and grow.
Does anyone care? Yes, we all do, because we know about good and bad conscience ourselves, and their life-long drama. We will all be exiled from our kingdom sooner or later. We will lose our power over others (if we have any), our power to make decisions, even our power over many aspects of our own lives. But the drama of conscience will not end; it will continue to our last breath.
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