Earlier this week, when I visited with our chief operating officer, David Simpson, about today’s Gospel passage, David said, “You’re preaching on that? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a sermon on the beheading of John the Baptist.”
It’s no wonder. This text is, perhaps, the most horrifying and lurid story in the entire bible. Had Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King collaborated on a second movie after “The Shining,” this would be the screenplay. Everything about it is awful.
Some background: The King Herod in today’s story is a son of Herod the Great, who was the king of Judea when Jesus was born and who murdered the children of Bethlehem in the attempt to kill Jesus. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Today’s Herod has married his brother’s wife, and if that alone weren’t a plotline suitable for a cable television reality show, Herod also has a disturbing attraction toward his adolescent step-daughter, who also happens to be his niece.
John the Baptist, who has continued to travel the countryside condemning sin since he baptized Jesus, has taken particular note of Herod’s strange household arrangement, and he has not been quiet in his indictment of the royal family. As a result, Herod has John the Baptist arrested. Herod wants to silence John, but he is afraid of the potential reaction from the crowd, so he dithers. Not so, Herod’s wife. With serpentine calculation, Herodias plays upon her husband’s obsession with her daughter, and she instructs the daughter—called Salome by historians—to dance provocatively for Herod during a dinner party.
Through centuries of literature and art, we have depictions of the Nabokov-like scene: the young Salome dancing suggestively; the libertine king ogling her all the while. And when the girl’s dance is finished, Herod predictably gushes, promising Salome anything in the world she might want. Salome is ready with her request, having been prompted by her mother. “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
Herod—afraid of John, afraid of the crowds, afraid of the watchful stares of his dinner guests, afraid of this girl who has him enthralled—cannot but give her what she asks. The deed is done. The head is displayed grotesquely on the dinner plate. And in a moment, John the Baptist—the second Elijah, the forerunner of our Lord—is snuffed from the story.
A few weeks ago this grisly story was displayed in vivid relief for Jill and me. We were in the oratory chapel of St. John’s Co-Cathedral on Malta, staring at the largest canvass ever painted by the great Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio: “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.” It covers the entire altar wall of the chapel, and it does justice to the biblical tale. In the snapshot of the painting, the executioner has struck the primary blow with his sword, and he leans down to finish the job with a knife. All the while, Salome eagerly awaits, holding forth a large platter to receive her trophy.
There is one mysterious, unidentified figure in Caravaggio’s painting, an elderly woman standing next to Salome. She can’t be Herod’s wife Herodias, both because the woman in the painting is too old and because she is clearly shocked and horrified by the event she has just witnessed. The woman’s hands are raised to the sides of her head, as if to cover her ears from the sound of her own scream. What has happened seems impossible to her. She isn’t sure how it can be. John the Baptist had just been standing before her, courageous and undaunted. He was vital. He had a role to play. And now he is gone.
She is why this distressing, seemingly unique story is worth preaching, because it is not unique at all. Certainly, the exact circumstances stand apart, even from other grisly stories in a bible full of them. But the shock experienced by the lone woman in Caravaggio’s masterpiece, the experience of a storyline being abruptly cut off, of a character leaving the scene before his role is complete…that’s an experience we all know intimately well: The life of one important to our world is ended by an assassin’s bullet. The grace-filled days of a saint in our lives are cut short by heart attack or cancer or stroke. A phone call tells us that the loved one we kissed goodbye scarcely a moment ago has been in an accident. With jarring suddenness, lives simply end. Purposes go unfulfilled. And we despair at the futility of our abbreviated existence. We are reminded of Shakespeare’s words in MacBeth:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
How many of us know the shock, horror, and sorrow of the woman in Caravaggio’s painting? Who among us doesn’t?
Both theologians and secular skeptics say that the religious impulse is, at root, a search for enduring meaning. Theologians find this impulse reliable, while skeptics suspect it is delusional, but that it is a defiance against MacBeth’s futility, against Salome’s silver platter, they both agree. Our souls rebel against the notion that the axe man, or the errant car at a traffic light, or the clogged artery, have the final say over the purposes, plans, and people in our lives that are so important to us. We won’t, we can’t believe it, and so we come here seeking hope that meaning does not end with the last gasp of breath or beat of the heart.
It is good that we do. But in the modern era we have become content with a diluted hope. Uncritically, we talk of heaven as the “what’s next” of this abbreviated existence, with its images of chaise-lounge rest, gauzy white surroundings, and freedom from discomfort and distress. But while that may be better than pain, it seems to me that it is hardly the fulfillment of the purposes so central to us here and so often stopped on a dime by sudden tragedy before their completion. Rather, our prevailing notion of heaven is of a place in which those purposes no longer matter to us, where we blithely abide, sleepy and carefree. It is an anesthetized life, lived on a cloud. Isn’t that how our culture portrays heaven, when we portray it at all?
But that’s a mere shade of the hope and promise of our Christian faith. Put bluntly, our common, conventional understanding of heaven is an escape from death, a close call with nothing but our new angel’s wings on our backs. God has something far greater than that in mind for us.
Saint Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians today that we were chosen in Christ before the very foundation of the world, that we are part of God’s good plan and will be, in the fullness of time, gathered up in Christ as part of a renewed world. You see, Jesus doesn’t escape death; he defeats death. Jesus enters all those moments, those sudden shocks that seem to steal from us our loves, our purposes, our very meaning, and he says, “No! This person, whose candle was snuffed too soon; this project, that was the source of such good in the world; this relationship between two souls, that joined them in a whole greater than its parts: they will have the last word, not death. I will gather them up into me.”
The plans and purposes of God, in which our own good plans and purposes participate, will not, ultimately, be thwarted. Until recently, all Christian burials entailed the feet of the deceased facing east. That was not so the gravedigger would know how to align the headstones, while the souls of the departed napped in heaven. It was so that, on the day of the General Resurrection, the faithful would rise newly embodied, ready to meet the returning Lord and go to work in God’s new world.
I’m not interested in debates between literal versus metaphorical understandings of the Resurrection. I’m interested in what the Resurrection means, and its promise is that even when the sword came down on John the Baptist with suddenness and shock, John’s role in God’s tapestry was not ended, but only interrupted. John, too, like our loved ones, like you, and like me, will in God’s new world carry on our joys, our loves, our work, contributing to the beauty and goodness of the whole.
This is the word of hope we Christians have to offer to the world: to the Jewish people who still lament millions of lives interrupted in the Holocaust, to the Yazidis and others whose lives are being ended each day by ISIS, to those worldwide whose lives are abbreviated by poverty and natural disaster, to the skeptic in our own society struggling with emotions of meaningless and despair, and to those of us in these pews who grieve each day for those we fear we’ve lost. This is the word of hope we offer: Death and the agents of death do not win; God wins. Nothing is lost. All is gathered up in Christ, and our purposes will be renewed, to continue on toward their fulfillment.
What does that mean for us now? It means that we are called not to live tentatively, not to hedge in our endeavors but be bold in our risky, courageous service to God. We are called to stand with Jesus against the powers of death. We are called to engage this life with gusto, with verve, and with joy, acknowledging surely that the shock may come to us at any time, around any corner, but fearing it not, because we know that we were made by God to play a part in God’s grand drama, and that no matter what interruption, our role will endure to the end.
[i] MacBeth, Act 5, scene 5.