|Memorial of the Beheading of
St. John the Baptist
Psalm 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15, 17
A royal birthday party, a resentful and scheming wife, a dancing girl, a wine-addled king, a murder resulting in a bloody head served up on a platter—what does all this have to with the Good News of Jesus Christ? And why, in the shortest of the gospels, does Mark spend thirteen verses on this bloody flashback (sex, booze, and violence) interrupting the forward motion of his narrative? No one has ever accused Mark of wasting parchment, so this episode must be something more than a fascinating distraction.
The spotlight is on Herod, with the Baptist, imprisoned and then murdered, offstage, until his head is brought in on the dish. Like a cork in a turbulent river, the king is adrift with pressures and desires. He has been both troubled by and fascinated with his prisoner, the prophet John. He wants to impress his powerful guests, the military and political big shots of Galilee. He has allowed his desire for Herodias to override the dictates of the Torah against marrying members of one’s extended family. Late in the party, wine has gone to his head and allowed him to get carried away with the pleasure of Salome’s dancing and to yield to the temptation of showing off before his guests and making the foolishly grand gesture: Ask me what you like, even half my kingdom! When, on the advice of her mother, Salome asks for the head of John—at once and on a platter!—this cork of a king is tossed by three pressures at once: regret that he had made the stupid promise, the pressure to retain his honor by keeping his public promise, and the pressure not shame himself before his guests. So he caves in to the request. John’s disciples come, take his body and lay it in a tomb.
For folks who know the story of Jesus, that last detail provides the clue to Mark’s intent. The lot of John the Baptist forecasts the lot of Jesus. Jesus, initially a disciple of John, will suffer his teacher’s fate. What’s more, the followers of Jesus will suffer their master’s fate as well. Disciples of Jesus, those in the gospel and those reading or hearing it, will face the same situation: in a world where the powers-that-be yield to a variety of distractions, addictions and pressures, the prophet-disciples will inevitably face rejection, and some even death. The contrast between the steady career of John and the vacillations of Herod demonstrate what is at stake. The only way to navigate the multiple and competing pressures that Herod faced is the sort of life dedicated to the will of God that John exemplifies.
For us disciples who read the Gospel of Mark, the lesson is clear:
following Jesus will sometimes put us at odds with the world around us.
The only way to negotiate the seductive and competing pressures of that
world is to be involved in a faith community that supports one another
in the challenge of living out the way of Jesus. One good example from
the current moment: Where do you stand regarding the signs that the U.S.
government prepares for war with Iraq? Various pressures can make that
question difficult to face: the momentum toward military intervention triggered
by our current war on terrorism, the awkwardness of questioning U.S. leaders
in the current rush of feel-good patriotism, the desire to keep a low profile
in the political forum at a time when our church has suffered public humiliation.
Whether we respond to the challenges of our times like John or like Herod
will be determined by how much we commit to following Jesus. It was risky
for the disciples of John to come and claim his body for burial. It took
a special commitment for Joseph of Arimathea and the women to claim and
bury the body of Jesus. The victory of the resurrection should make this
risk of following Jesus a littler easier for us who come so much later
and benefit from the experience and examples of the likes of Thomas Merton,
Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and John Paul II. Let us pray.
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