For several months, the prophet John saw the days and nights pass slowly in the dark and humid prison cell of the fortress of Machaerus, where king Herod had locked him up. That voice shouting in the desert, preparing the way of the liberation of Israel, was gradually fading away within the filthy walls of his cell. One day the prison door was opened and Matthew, one of the prophet’s friends, came in. He came from Galilee after seeing Jesus…
Matthew: John, John, I’m back! How’re you?
John the Baptist: I told you, I’d only die after you came back… I kept my word…. Where is Thomas?
Matthew: In Jerusalem. He went there to celebrate the Passover with that guy from Nazareth, Jesus, and his group. He’ll be back after the holidays.
Baptist: Tell me about Jesus. Did you see him? Did you give him my message?
Matthew: Yes, John. That’s why I came… to tell you that…
Baptist: I can die peacefully?
Matthew: Don’t say that, John. You won’t die. Look, I brought you some medicines…
Baptist: Tell me what Jesus said. I’d like to know.
Matthew: Jesus wants you to know that in Galilee the people are beginning to open their eyes. The people are beginning to rise and move. That the poor are beginning to listen to the Good News. That the Lord is on our side and… and that he expects you to be happy about this, John.
Baptist: Of course I am, Matthew. In a wedding, the groom remains with the bride. But the groom’s best man, who is present, is also very happy… Now it’s Jesus’ turn… He has to grow while I fade away…
Jailer: Enough of that silly talk. Your time’s up!
Matthew: I’ve got to go, John, but I’ll be back soon, whenever possible.
Baptist: I’ll be waiting for you. If you see Jesus again, tell him to grip the plow well, and not look back. If ever I get out of this hell, he… he can count on me.
Matthew: I’ll tell him, John, I’ll tell him….
Jailer: C’mon, you’ve been talking with your prophet for too long…. Beat it!
Matthew and the jailer passed through the narrow stairs leading to the patio. John dropped himself on the dirty straw mat, and stared at the leaking roof. He fell asleep, recalling the brown face of Jesus, that peasant from Nazareth whom he had baptized in the Jordan just a few months before.
In those days, a celebration was held at the palace of Machaerus, because it was Herod’s birthday. The luxurious halls of the palace were filled with the king’s guests: Roman officials and captains, merchants from Jerusalem, desert chieftains of the Bedouin tribes… everyone wanted to greet the Tetrarch from Galilee…
A Man: May King Herod live one hundred years more!
A Woman: Good health to the sovereign of Galilee!
Herod: I welcome everyone to my house! Let’s begin the party!
A Woman: Did you notice the huge bags under his eyes?
A Friend: They say the king has been experiencing terrible nightmares ever since he had the prophet imprisoned…
A Woman: Well, he’ll be worse when he finds out. They say that this John is never quiet, even in jail. He has revolutionized the other prisoners. He even incites the jailers.
A Friend: Really? I can’t believe it…
Woman: You better believe it, my friend. I tell you, if the king does not watch out, this long-haired man will give us a hard time. Let’s just hope that the king silences him soon….
Woman Friend: If the king can’t decide, then the queen should push him into it…. Ha, ha!
Herodias: What’s with you, Herod, my love? You look worried since this morning… Or, are you bored?
Herod: Leave me alone…
Herodias: Hmm… What’s wrong with you? Come, come… Ha, ha…! Why don’t you have a shot of this liquor?… It will lift your spirits… Come…
Herod: Herodias, do you think this noise will be heard down there?
Herodias: Down there….? What are you talking about?
Herod: Down in the prison cell, where else?
Herodias: There you go again! Of course the noise will be heard, so what?… Are you afraid of that scabby prophet?… Of course he hears everything!… Let him die of envy! That prophet!… wasn’t he always involved in trouble?… Well, this serves him right!…. Let him rot and eat his heart out!
Herod: Don’t talk that way, Herodias. It could… it could bring bad luck.
Herodias: How I wish this damned prophet would be dead. I’m sick and tired of seeing you worrying about him everytime. Don’t be stupid, Herod, either you forget about that good for nothing prophet, or have his head cut off. You’d better decide!
Herod: I can’t do that, Herodias, I can’t… I can’t!
Herodias, Herod’s lover, was Philip’s wife, the brother of the king. She loathed John because he confronted Herod to his face with all his crimes and his adulterous affair with her…
Herodias: Salome! Salome!… Come here, my dear!
Herod: What did you call your daughter for?
Herodias: Just a minute, you wait there…
Salome: Yes, mom…
Herodias: Look, child, the king is worried, and I thought that perhaps you could drive away his worries…
Salome: What do you want me to do, mama?
Herodias: Dance for him the seven veils. You know what I mean…
The music was heard in the prison cells of the palace…
Jailer: Hey, you wretch, do you hear the noise coming from up there? It’s our king’s birthday!
Baptist: Your king. I’ve got nothing to do with him.
Jailer: There’s so much food, the most expensive wine, and music… There’s a great splurging all over!
Baptist: Let them… They are all getting fat like swine for the day of the massacre….
Jailer: You’ve got such a sharp tongue. That’s why you’re locked up here. If only you could shut your mouth for once, then probably the king would set you free.
Baptist: If he did, then I’d shout all the more.
Jailer: Then you’re doomed, my friend… Listen, I’m a cruel soldier, but not with people like you… How I admire courageous men like you…
Baptist: I don’t need your admiration. It’s all silly talk. But you can do something. Why don’t you tell your friends that we’re all brothers and sisters and so don’t lift a sword against each other…
Jailer: You want me to say that… and have my tongue cut off, huh?
Baptist: So you wouldn’t dare do that, would you? But there’s something else you can do. You can set me free and let me talk to them.
Jailer: Huh! That’s even worse. If I let you go, then they’ll be after my head, instead of my tongue. No, no, I don’t want to get involved in this mess. I’m a soldier and I have to obey orders. My chief commands me to keep close watch on you.
Baptist: Don’t follow the orders of an unjust man. Why don’t you rebel, my friend?
Jailer: What’re you telling me? Are you out of your mind?… I’m a soldier, and I’m here to obey orders. The law is the law.
Baptist: The law of Herod is crime and violation. God’s law is freedom. Open up this jail and set the prisoners free. Now’s the time to rebel, friend!
Meanwhile, Salome was dancing…
Herod: Very good, Salome!… How well you move your legs, young lady!… Ha, ha! You make me drool over you… You deserve a reward. Ask me anything… bracelets, silk, gold, silver, perfume… and you’ll get it. You deserve half my kingdom!
At that moment, Herodias, who was reclining beside the king, looked at Salome and winked at her… Everything was planned before the dance.
Salome: My Lord: there’s one dish missing on this table.
Herod: What? You want to eat more? I wouldn’t want you to get fat, young lady, you’re okay as you are now! Ha, ha…! Don’t you think so? Tell me, what do you want?… more sauce, chicken, a lamb’s head…?
Salome: No, I want the head of the prophet, John.
Salome: I want the head of the prophet on a platter, for my gift.
Herod: But… but, do you know what you’re saying, Salome?
Herodias: You heard her, Herod.
Herod: This is a trap… Damn you! I can’t do that.
Herodias: You swore in front of many people, Herod… There are many witnesses… So the Tetrarch of Galilee does not keep his word!
There was great silence in the hall, interrupted only by the clinking of glasses. The guests who were drunk did not know what was happening. Herod’s lips were trembling when he gave the command…
Herod: Aquila, go down to the jail and comply with this young lady’s request.
Aquila, who was one of the king’s bodyguards, obeyed the order. John did not say a word. His eyes remained open just as when he was in the river, staring at the horizon, awaiting the coming of the Messiah.
When Matthew and his friends learned about this, they took his body, which was hardened by the desert sun and buried it. All Israel mourned the death of the prophet, John, he who prepared the way for the liberator of Israel.
During the time of kings, about a thousand years before Christ, the prison emerged as an institution in Israel. In general, some sections or portions inside the palace served as the same. In Jesus’ time, the prisoners could be visited. They were usually put in chains, and as a punishment, their feet were put in shackles. John the Baptist languished in jail for a number of months in the dungeon of the palace which Herod had in Machaerus, near the Dead Sea.
Herod the Great, father of the Herod in this episode, did not have Jewish blood. He was the son of an Idumean and a woman descendant of a sheik. The customs of his court were influenced more by foreign and Hellenistic customs than by the strict Jewish morals. Herod the Great maintained a harem, held orgies where his luxury in clothing and abundance of food were known in the neighboring countries. He was fond of animal fights, the theater, and gymnastic games… The court of his son, Herod Antipas, the King of Galilee during Jesus’ time, similarly adopted this style of life. In Machaerus, – a fortress and a palace in one – a number of these parties were held. Herod’s birthday was an annual celebration. Herod Antipas was a politically corrupt man. His personal ways were not exemplary either. Because of his greed for power, he married a daughter of Aretas IV, an Arab king. Later, when he travelled to Rome, he became a lover of Herodias, who was married to Philip, one of his stepbrothers, leaving the daughter of Aretas out in the cold. This sparked a war between the Arab king and the Galilean king, in which, Antipas apparently emerged the winner. Since then, Herod lived with Herodias, together with her daughter, Salome. The objection posed by John to this adulterous union and his criticisms of the crimes and abuses committed by the king, earned for him the ire of this woman, who, in the end, devised the death of the great prophet of the Jordan. Herod – super¬-stitious and coward that he was – would never have decided for himself.
In the episode, before his death John the Baptist incites to rebellion one of the soldiers he has befriended in jail. He dares him to make a de¬¬¬-ci¬sion to choose between an unjust law, ordering the killing of a brother, and the law of God which is life and freedom. The most ancient Christian tradition has taught us that in cases like this, one must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:27-29). Up to these days, this prophetic cry of subversion has reached us in the final words delivered by the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero in his cathedral in San Salvador: “God’s law must prevail over an order to kill one’s brother, which says: Do not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is against the law of God.”
John’s death was, at that particular moment, the consequence of the king’s drunkenness, and the calculated astuteness of his lover. But this is just an appearance. Although John reached his goal in silence, in the dark¬ness of history, his end was an equally glorious one. It was the ultimate price of long fidelity. The prophet often has to pay with his life for his criticisms and his rebellion against authority. It is in this consistency, up to the final consequences, where the true prophet becomes known. He is not an opportunist who goes with the tide when it suits him, who is courageous only because he hopes to be applauded, who says this now, but sings another tune the next day, and who does all this well, simply because he is a good actor. A prophet is one who follows one line and sticks to it, even if it costs his life. This is John the Baptist, from the time he enclosed himself in the Monastery of the Essenes or during his popular days in the Jordan up to that day when an unknown soldier cut his head off in the dungeon. He lived a life of fidelity for the cause of justice.
(Mt 14:3-12; Mk 6:17-29)