|(The Beheading of John the Baptist, Caravaggio, 1610)|
Following the Crowd
I imagine there was a time in each of our lives when our parents taught us to be our own person and not to follow, or go along with, the “crowd.” Usually this teaching was imparted after some failure on our part: Like when some of my buddies asked me to join them to go “mooching” at our neighborhood grocery store. Mooching meant cruising the produce department and “sampling” grapes, strawberries, and other small fruits from the rack. When I got home from “mooching” and couldn’t eat my lunch because I was “full,” my mother asked me why. “I’m full from mooching, mom.” She asked me what mooching was and I told her. To put it mildly, she quickly and firmly set me straight and told me I shouldn’t follow the lead of my buddies in taking things and not paying for them. Truth told, I can’t remember if it was I who led them!
Crowds are powerful. When a crowd is passionate about a certain path, direction, or action, good or bad, it is hard to stand apart. When a significant group or crowd is passionate about something it is hard to sway them away from it and easier just to give in and follow them. Satisfying the desire of the crowd at least brings about a semblance of peace- for a time.
Childhood exploits are one thing, but adult life and death issues are another. Such was the case with today’s gospel story of the beheading of John the Baptist. Some background is in order. There was no love lost between Herod Antipas and his brother Philip. Herod had seduced and married Philip’s wife, Herodias, the wrongness of which John vehemently opposed. Herodias had a young daughter, Salome, now Herod’s step-daughter. Herodias had it in for John the Baptist who was being held in the palace jail. John had denounced the marriage of Herod to Philip’s wife as sinfully incestuous. Herod was torn: there was something special about John’s message that seemed true and intrigued him, but at the same time John was publically damning to his image. Bottom line: Herod subtly protected John, but Herodias wanted John dead.
Herod has a birthday party with a group of his friends. As entertainment, Herodias provides young Salome to dance for Herod and his friends. I say “young Salome” because she is usually thought of as a fully developed teenage girl who knows how to perform a sexy dance, but the Greek word to describe Salome iskorasion which means young girl, probably just starting to go through puberty, maybe 11-12 years old and still very innocent.
The dance of the young girl is still tremendously erotic. Herod has Herodias, but really desires Salome. All his party friends also desire this innocent one as well. The passion builds. At the conclusion of the dance, when the clapping is over, Herod’s passion reached its height. In front of everyone, Herod promises to give Salome anything she wants, even half his kingdom. Salome, a young girl, has no idea what this means or what to ask for so she runs to ask her mother, who tells her: “Ask for the head of John the Baptist to be delivered on a plate right away.” When Salome announces her decision to Herod and his friends, their passionate desire for Salome, passes to having the head of John the Baptist. Herod is trapped by his own words and unspoken passion and Herodias is happy to finally get rid of John the Baptist.
The beheading of John the Baptist is an important story because it is so similar to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. There is aleader Pilate (Herod) even maybe a bit reluctant to use life and death power, there is a victim Jesus (John), and there is apassionate crowd yelling “crucify him” (or erotically moved by the dance of a young unattainable girl).
What does this all mean? Most of us look at Jesus death on the Cross as a unique event or death, but we have to ask ourselves: Does Jesus just desire us to focus on him and his death or does Jesus mean to show by his death that he is joining with victims of all times who have suffered under poor, cowardly leaders, egged on by crowds whipped up to passion fervor or people with grudges or prejudice? Jesus was unique as Emmanuel, God with us, but his death was not unique at all. Jesus’ death was like the deaths of scapegoated victims of all times.
What is the Good News here? The Church can help us discern the true prophets of our time, heed them, and protect them from scapegoating. The Church’s track record has not always been good in this regard, but I think it is getting better in criticizing leaders and advocating for victims. Let’s conclude listening to Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians from today’s lessons
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed In him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English, Anglican Communion) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.