This is one horrific story – so senseless, so tragic. It recounts the death of a devoted servant of God who played a vital role in salvation history. His death is no martyrdom. This is not Stephen, who after testifying to God’s faithfulness lifts his eyes to the heavens and beholds Jesus, as the stones batter his body and end his life. No, this death is brought about by a drunken, lustful ruler who allows himself to be seduced by the sensuous dancing of his teenage daughter and tricked by his cunning wife into making a foolish promise that he must then carry out just to save face in the company of his equally-besotted guests. This is a silent beheading, without witnesses or testimony, of a man of God who had been imprisoned for his bold witness to the truth.
The “king” was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had married a Nabataean princess but then discarded her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The dishonored princess fled in humiliation back to her father, which led to a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed by the Nabataean king and his forces. Nevertheless, Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the courage and moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was. No one except John made any attempt to hold this king accountable for his lies and deceptions, and for his evil actions. No one else had the courage to speak the truth to him. They were all afraid.
My Brothers here know that I am an avid reader of mystery stories. Today’s Gospel reading is, in a sense, a kind of mystery story. When I say this I don’t mean a story like a “detective story.” The relationship of Jesus with his Father is the one true mystery. The relationship of Jesus and his disciples is another. The feast we keep today, Mary the God Bearer, is an important part of that Mystery. The link between Jesus and his disciples and us is also.
Jesus’ presence with his disciples, and their relationship with him is truly a kind of mystery. Jesus told the disciples of John that as long as he and his disciples were together they would not fast, as the Gospel lesson today told us. (Cf. v. 15)
When I read the gospel lesson for this Eucharist, my first response was ‘how timely!’
This story feels particularly helpful and relevant to me right now because it deals with our response to fear, and while fear can be a threatening presence in our lives at most any time, it seems to me that it is particularly present in the current age. Our country is more polarized than at any time in recent memory.
We are witnessing the gaps widen between the rich and the poor,
between the privileged and powerful and the weakest and most vulnerable;
between the “right” and the “left,” between “conservatives” and “liberals”,
between Republicans and Democrats,
between viewers of Fox News and viewers of CNN;
between white people and the structures that support their place of privilege in the world and people of color who are fed up with being the victims of racism and xenophobia;
between government officials and the people they represent, and even between our country and other nations of the world, many of whom have been our allies in the past.
Fear seems to be at the heart of so much of the conflict and distrust: Some of us fear that our culture is changing in ways that threaten our values and beliefs. Some of us are afraid that others will take what we have – whether that be our property or our security or our way of life or our rights as human beings worthy of respect and equality with others. Fear is often at the core of our response to our “enemies,” real or perceived; we fear individuals and groups of people who have power over us and who seem willing to take us to places where we do not want to go. For many of us, fear has been the unwelcomed companion who forces his way into our lives against our wishes, and remains stubbornly in our midst while we try to imagine how we will ever get him to leave! It feels as if we are in an age of strife that is threatening our ability to live peaceably together and to work towards clearly-identified common goods. It feels like we are caught in a storm, partly of our own making – a perfect storm in which fear has been a primary catalyst.
Wisdom 7:7-14 & John 8:25-32
“All good things came to me along with her,
And in her hands uncounted wealth.
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
But I did not know that she was their mother.”
We all have an intuitive relationship with goodness, beauty, and truth. We come across things in the world that seem to reach out and grab us by the heart – perhaps a piece of art or music, a holy place, a human relationship, a piece of philosophy or Scripture that brings joy and light into our life. These things are good because they are from God, and we rejoice in them even before we know that God is their mother. We rejoice in them because they are like signposts, pointing the way back to Wisdom and helping us to desire and understand her.
But the things that lead us to God are not, themselves, God. All the truth and beauty we know in this life will inevitably disappoint us from time to time. We find that something beautiful no longer moves us, or that something true no longer convinces or reassures us, and we are left in the dark without any signposts to remind us that eternal Wisdom is out there.
“It is I; do not be afraid.”1This is a familiar pattern. The Gospel narratives are full of instances where Jesus appears to his followers in a way that causes them terror. These experiences of fear seem to come in response to those moments in which Christ’s divinity is revealed, full and alive within his human vesture. In Mark’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord tells the women at the tomb that Jesus has arisen as he said; to this, we respond, “Alleluia,”2but this news prompted the women to flee from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them.”3 At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John are clearly astonished throughout the episode, but fall over in terror at the Father’s proclamation that, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This fear is only calmed by Jesus touching the disciples and telling them “do not be afraid.”4
But then, Jesus’s revelation does not only cause fear among his disciples. In John’s Gospel, Christ asks the company of men who had come to arrest him, “Whom are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he replies, “I am he.” At this, the men “stepped back and fell to the ground.”5 Falling to the ground implies an uncontrolled, instinctual response. Like a person whose hand touches the hot burner of a stove, this is not a thought-out reaction.
There is a word that is used to describe Christians, a word that sets them apart from others and captures the essence of who and what they are. It is a word that has been with us from the very beginnings of the Church, when those who identified themselves as followers of Jesus began to gather together to worship and to share their lives with one another. The word is “believers.”
Christians became known as “believers” because they believed and trusted
that Jesus was the Son of God,
that he had come into the world to reveal to us the true nature of God,
that after his death on a Cross he had been raised from the dead,
and that he was with us still, and would be to the end of time.
“Believing” is one of the principle themes of the Gospel of John, from which our gospel lesson today is taken. John begins his telling of the Good News by revealing to us, his readers, who Jesus is and why he came into the world. It is as if he is drawing aside the curtain, letting us in on the secret, true identity of this humble teacher from Galilee, letting us glimpse what he and others have come to know over time. John begins his account by telling us that Jesus is “the Word” who was “with God” and who “was God” from the very beginning of time (John 1:1). He tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14), bringing “light” and “life,” in order to reveal to us the nature and purposes of God. “No one has ever seen God,” he tells us, “it is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). And “to all who receivedhim, who believedin his name,” he proclaims, “he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).
Running in the dark
a stone out of place
a broken seal
an open door.
Sweat evaporating on necks and ankles chills the skin of of two men who followed Him everywhere.
Tears well up and spill over in the eyes of a woman who loved him above all else.
Hearts beat faster
reason flutters, falters, and fails
in the face of a
where He who said I AM seemed not to be
To know something is, in our imagination, an intellectual endeavor. To know something is to study it, to ascertain its dimensions, to come to conclusions about it, to test those conclusions, always refining your conclusions based on that testing, and to be able to articulate what you’ve learned to another. This is a valuable and useful approach, and it’s consistent with the general standard of knowledge that Western culture has adopted in the modern era.
But I find it lacks. I find it unsatisfying. It, perhaps, can sate my intellect, but I find that that’s not enough. As much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not merely an intellect. And as I learn to have less fealty to my intellect and more loyalty to my full humanity, I increasingly find this approach to knowledge to be somewhat sterile. Helpful, useful, yes, of course. But after this meal of the intellect, I often walk away feeling undernourished.
It is reassuring to find, then, that this is an incomplete understanding of the idea of knowledge in Christianity. St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian deacon and hymn writer, put forth the idea that there were three ways to attempt to know something.1 The first, the crudest, the most rudimentary, is a pursuit of knowledge that seeks to dominate the subject that is to be known. This is knowledge merely as a means to an end. There is nothing inherently wrong with coming to know something purely in service of some other goal, but it is no full depiction of Christian knowledge
1 Corinthians 13:8-12 & Mark 8:22-26
Because children have a limited capacity to understand certain standard operating procedures of the adult world, they often come to conclusions that are very logical, but alas, entirely incorrect. National Public Radio’s Ira Glass calls this universal phenomenon “kid logic.”[i] For example, my younger sister was convinced that any building called a warehouse was a designated habitat for a werewolf, since these were the only two words she ever encountered with that particular prefix. Similarly, after overhearing an adult conversation featuring the improbable word “concubine” I became convinced that this was a rare species related to the porcupine. My parents patiently let us discover the errors of our “kid logic” on our own, and when we realized the inaccuracy of our theories, we were able to laugh at ourselves — and recalibrate. As children get closer to adolescence, they have a harder time with this gradual approach to revising their narratives. It’s a stage when many instances of “kid logic” collapse, often rapidly and ungracefully, in the face of new evidence about the world. That pre-teen struggle to integrate a vast range of new knowledge – along with the inner imperative to project a persona of effortless maturity to keep up with one’s peers – can make junior high school an unusually cruel boot-camp in disillusionment.
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)/Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17/1 Cor. 6:12-20/John 1:43-51
This scene from the Gospel of John seems camera-ready to me—if a bit odd with its very abrupt ending. John sets the scene: somewhere in Galilee “on the next day”—which happens to be the second day after Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. The main characters are on the set. Jesus is ready with cryptic quotes. (“Where did you get to know me?” “I saw you under the fig tree.” The actor playing Nathanael is ready with earnest effusions. (Who would play guileless Nathanael? Maybe that guy that plays Jamie on that cop show “Blue Bloods”—Will Estes?) Somewhere in the background there’s got to be a fig tree. The cameras roll. The players play.
Then this strange and abrupt ending: “Very truly I tell you, you will heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” End of scene—that’s it; we have no idea what happened later that day. All of a sudden it’s chapter three: “On the third day there was a wedding…”