So who is the prisoner and who is the free man? Obviously John the Baptist is the free man and Herod is the prisoner. Justice, integrity and truth shape the soul of John the Baptist and make him free. Lust, pride and gluttony shape the soul of Herod and turn him into a fumbling, dangerous fool. John lives in the freedom that comes from being convinced of the truth. Herod believes he can shape reality to suit his own desires and purposes and so lives in permanent slavery. He twists and turns, perplexed by John but wanting to listen to him, dismayed at the girl's request but afraid of seeming weak in front of his guests.
The martyrs often die, in the end, for defending something that others might thing not worth dying for. Refusing Henry VIII's oath of supremacy? Condemning Herod's adultery? Refusing to burn incense to an idol? Why should good people give their lives for things like this? Surely some compromise, some acceptable toleration or interpretation could be found that would spare good people for the world. Choose a lesser evil, some might say. Don't let the best get in the way of the good. 'God will understand.'
But there is for us only this bodily life. This is where we find meaning and purpose, truth and integrity. These are not just ideas that are abstract, detached, and disincarnate. We only experience them embodied, either in the physical body or the social body, the body of the family or the body of the Church, the political body or the body created by our commitments and relationships. The first reading today anticipates so much of later Christian morality. We should act as it directs, we are told, because 'we also are in the body'. The life of faith is lived out in hospitality, care for prisoners, respect for marriage, contentment with what you have, loyalty to good leaders. None of these things can be done in theory only, they must be done in practice. That means they must be done in our bodies, acted out physically.
It remains the case: all the characteristically 'Catholic' issues in ethics are about the right treatment and use of bodies. This is a point on which the Church and modern thought have now diverged significantly. The Church believes not just that human beings have souls but that human beings are bodies. Many people will think that modern thought champions the body whereas Catholicism is 'spiritual' and not in the real world. But the opposite is the truth because the Church 'remembers its leaders', its apostles and teachers and martyrs, other parts of the same body who teach us how to live in that body.
The Church believes not just that human beings have souls but that human beings are bodies. We see the truth of this very clearly in the flabby shape of Herod disintegrating as a human being because of the things he does in the body, the things he does with the bodies of other people. We see it very clearly also from the other side in the heroic shape of John the Baptist, because of the things he does in the body, preaching and baptising, as well as the things that are done to him in the body. Today the Church celebrates the Japanese martyrs Paul Miki and his companions, victims of cruel persecution in what was done to their bodies, remaining completely free in what they did with their bodies, in the service of Christ and his people.