Believe it or not, I have been looking forward to preaching this story, the Gospel of Mark’s story of the beheading of John the Baptist, for some time. This is an incredibly dramatic story found, of course, within the larger story of the Gospels, and has literally captured the imagination of many artists over the centuries. It has all the elements of a tragedy with the injustice of murder, the scandal of greed, the malevolence of naked political ambition and most certainly the provocative sexual elements of lust and seduction. This is the stuff of great drama and great art. Indeed painters have painted it, playwrights have dramatized it, opera writers have written librettos, and filmmakers have captured it on celluloid. In fact I think it could well be the case that other than the Passion of Christ, no other story in the New Testament has provided so much material for artistic interpretation and performance.
However, is the actual story we read in the Gospel of Mark a real tragedy in the classical sense of the word. In a classical tragedy the main character, in this case Herod, would be developed enough in terms of his or her character so that we could see their tragic flaw and how this would lead to their ruin. We don’t really get this in this brief passage. Salome, the daughter of Herodias, seems too much under the thumb of her mother to be a tragic figure. There does seem to be a whiff of the tragic character in Herodias, the mother, but her singular motive for the beheading of John the Baptist is revenge and many would argue that is not ample enough material to be thought of as a tragic flaw.
Then of course we have John. John’s calling in life was to speak the truth of God and announce the coming of the Christ. In this sense he is not a tragic figure, but someone who not only introduces Jesus to the world but also in a very important way acts as a vehicle of transference from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament. The God of the Hebrew Bible is now incarnate, John would say, and we need to prepare a way for this fact and for the love of God. What I am saying then is that this story, while made and molded into a tragedy over and over again by artists of various stripes throughout history, this story is not a classical tragedy in the literary sense because the Bible is not written as a tragedy. The story of the Bible starts in the beginning of all things and everything else from then on is history, everything else is what falls out of the story of the Garden of Eden. What follows from “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, is the story of the human condition and how God always enters the scene with grace and love in Her understanding of our human condition.The Bible then is not a tragedy, but rather a chronicle of the relationship between God and God’s people.
Therefore in this Biblical story, the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, we get a particular slice of the human condition and it so happens that this particular slice is extremely dark and grotesque. Mark’s narrative here is harsh and austere and he presents a world represented by the court of Herod that is secretive and masked in a soul destroying kind of way, and where fiendish objectives and tormented ambition and reckless passions seem to live side by side with the everyday business of political leadership. The reader of this story is very much forced see the bad and the ugly of Herod’s reign and not given much time or space to contemplate the ramifications. This story very quickly descends into some of the darkest places humanity can place itself on account of the lust for power and the benefits that power may bring.
In short what Mark is dealing with in this story is evil. It is not evil spirits or the devil, it is the evil found in some human beings who in the pursuit and procurement of power get enthralled with the sex and the money and the influence that power can bring. What is particularly heinous in this story is that those in power inflict pain and suffering on those who have little or no power seemingly for sport or for fun. The political elite in Herod’s court lord it over those who are the most vulnerable, the most frail and the most incapacitated simply because they can, and because they get some perverse pleasure in doing so. In this story it would seem that brutality prevails and the innocent are mere pawns in a very unjust world.
In point of fact in Mark’s story of the beheading of John the Baptist we are dealing with two stark opposites, we are dealing with the realities of power and powerlessness. In this slice of the human condition the Gospel of Mark points out that John the Baptist’s message of love and forgiveness and change is seemingly powerless against the corruption of Herod’s court. Even Herod himself, who does have the choice, does have the option of choosing grace and not giving in to what is evil seems powerless to do so. Just as later in the Gospel story, Herod succumbs to evil and seems powerless to perform an act of grace for John the Baptist just as Pilot is seemingly powerless to prevent the injustice of committing Jesus to the cross. Evil in our world is real, we know that, and at times we seem powerless to stop it. But, in the end of this story in the Gospel of Mark we see a glimmer of something quite different, in fact in the last line we here this, “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb”. Please hold onto that thought.
I have a true story to tell you and while it has elements of horror and evil, I do want you to know there is an ending to it that is full of grace and love. While I was going to VST for a couple of summers I volunteered at the Dr Peter Center in downtown Vancouver. For those of you who do not know, the Dr Peter Center is, among a number of other things, a hospice for people with HIV who had contracted full-blown AIDS. The idea of the center is to provide excellent hospice care in a very comfortable and well-appointed setting for those dying of AIDS and who have few financial resources. My job as a volunteer and given my training as a Priest wannabe was to wonder the halls and make conversations with the residents. I befriended one of the residents who told me his life story and gave me permission to share it in my professional life. This is his story.
At the age of fourteen he was living with his family in a large town in Saskatchewan. It was the late 1960’s and he strongly felt it was time to tell his family that he was gay. He told his mother and father and while he knew it would be difficult for them he had hope that they would in time understand. Unfortunately it did not work out that way. Upon hearing the news his father literally dragged him out of their house onto their front lawn. Once there his father shouted out to all the neighbours that his son was a “faggot” and he began to beat and punch and kick his son until he was bloodied and helpless. No one called the police. His father then told him that he was no longer a member of the family and that he was this instant to leave and never come back. With blood running down his face and on his shirt and no money in his pocket and at the age of fourteen, he was told to leave that instant from that lawn and to never come back. He was powerless and so he did just that.
By various means he made his way to Vancouver because he heard it might be safe here to be who he is. He lived on the street for a while and had to do what homeless teenagers so often have to do for food and shelter. He eventually found a job and after a year or so began to take a night course to finish his high school education. He liked school and was a hard worker so when he got his diploma he entered a trade program and became a hairdresser, which was something he knew he would enjoy. Over the years he saved enough money to open his own shop and realize a dream of his. He ran a successful hairdressing business for a number of years, became involved in a wonderful and loving relationship and made many good friends. He became HIV positive and for quite a while did well with the early treatments that were then available. Even so he did contract AIDS and the expenses surrounding the illness at the time caused him to loose his business and most of his savings and now he was at the Dr Peter Center spending his last few days. He told me that he strongly believed in God. He told me that he had no regrets, other than never having seen his family again, and that he thought his life was such a gift and that life itself was beautiful. He died a content man full of a faith in something greater. He overcame powerlessness and evil, and love truly had the final world in his reality.
“When his disciples heard about it, they came and took John the Baptist’s body, and laid it in a tomb”. That is a clear foreshadow of what will happen to Jesus. Disheartened and grief-ridden his disciples would lay His body in a tomb. The dark and ugly side of political power won and the meek and defenseless lost utterly. Except, we know the ending to that story and that story really began at the very beginning of all things when God said, “Let there be light”. The last word would not, will not and will never be given to evil and terror because through the crevasses and margins of life comes the radiance of the love of God. Life will at times bloody us, beat us and kick us when we are down, and we may well feel powerless in its grip, but if we have faith in ourselves and faith even as small as a mustard seed in the love of God we will prevail, we will flourish and we will see the gift and the beauty of life. I would like to end with a poem by Maya Angelou.
I am a Christian When I say "I am a Christian" I'm not shouting "I am saved." I'm whispering "I get lost" That is why I chose this way.
When I say "I am a Christian" I don't speak of this with pride. I'm confessing that I stumble And need someone to be my guide.
When I say "I am a Christian" I'm not trying to be strong. I'm professing that I am weak And pray for strength to carry on.
When I say "I am a Christian" I'm not claiming to be perfect. My flaws are too visible But God believes I'm worth it.
When I say "I am a Christian" I still feel the sting of pain. I have my share of heartaches Which is why I seek HIS name.
When I say "I am a Christian" I do not wish to judge. I have no authority I only know I'm loved.
And if I may be so bold, and with nothing but the greatest of respect to Maya Angelou, may I add, when I say I am a Christian I know that I am loved because no matter where I am, through the crevasses and margins of my life the glimmering light of God always comes through. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney