I celebrate as my onomastico, or “name day”, the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist, August 29. “He must increase,” said the Baptist, “I must decrease” (John 3:30). I need that rule of life. St Augustine of Hippo (d 430) connected John’s sudden, violent “decrease”, his head’s removal from his shoulders, with the autumnal shortening of daylight, while the feast of John’s birth coincided with the vernal lengthening of days.
Speaking of shoulders, as I write I am in the “City of Big Shoulders”, as poet Carl Sandburg described Chicago, in defiance of the world’s other great cities, like London, Rome and Paris. As he explained it: “The poem sort of says, ‘Maybe we ain’t got culture, but we’re eatin’ regular.’ ”
One of the things I regularly eat here is the indigenous hot dog. I’ve learned to order these like a native speaker by cordially growing, “drag in through da’ garden”, to make sure that all the necessary hot peppers, onions, tomatoes, celery salt and pickles are included. When they weren’t eatin’ so regular here, they loaded up the bun with veggies. What was once famine fare is now a feast.
Chicago has culture in addition to the hot dog. Not far from where I am, on the other side of the “Friendly Confines” of Wrigley Field (where the Cubs play The Game God Surely Loves Best), in the Art Institute of Chicago, there is a tempera on panel depiction of the beheading of the Baptist by the Sienese painter Giovanni di Paolo (d 1482). You view the instant after the deed. Seen from outside the prison, John leans out of his window, guillotine like, his headless shoulders and angled arms still in place as a massive gout of blood jets forth the jutting neck. A servant with a platter stoops for his head. The executioner wipes his man-length blade.
John was not only a martyr for the Truth. Miraculous son of the elderly priest Zechariah, he was also a priestly martyr. John stood against Herod and his crony cadre of corrupted priests who backed his violation of the truth of sexuality and marriage. Herod used his power to sin. John’s blood exposed also priestly corruption in a way that no one could ignore.
By the way, Herod’s command to kill John, the incorruptible priest, came from his lust for a child. Salome was a “little girl” (Greek korásion).
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection