We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
THE DANCE OF DEATH
The beheading of John the Baptist occupies such a key place in the history which accompanies Christ’s mission that all four Gospels give account of it or allude to it. It’s a tale which is meant to shock the reader and the hearer – by it’s very depravity! But it demonstrates very clearly something of the world in which Jesus was teaching and preaching and healing, and the kind of accepted behaviour – at least in privileged circles – which passed for the norm. This story has everything – sex, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, the corruption of power, the murder of the innocent, the instability of the wicked, the doubt which eventually unseats the powerful. One needs to be very well prepared to pray this section of Scripture by entering into it with the senses.
It begins with curiosity: Herod’s curiosity. We recall that Herod Antipas, sometimes called the Tetrarch, was a vassal king, allowed to rule by the Romans who controlled the province of Judea. This had been a common way of exercising dominion since the Persians held sway in the ancient near East and had their capital at Susa – they appointed kings, tyrants, to rule cities on their behalf, and keep good order, collecting taxes and making sure that the Persian hand was felt. This system of government in the ancient world passed away with the succeeding hegemony of Athens, then Sparta, then Thebes and then Macedon, but the Romans revived it, to some extent, with the growth of empire. And so Herod is a king very much in name but with a limited power base upon which to exercise authority. That said, as with all who have a little authority, they like to make the most of it and like to make it felt, and Herod, and his family, were no exception to this.
Herod’s curiosity is a mix of many things, which reveal much about himself, and much about us. The opening few verses of this section pose the “Who do people say I am?” question, without making it specific, and which will be dealt with fully by Mark in 8:27, and even more completely by Matthew in his Gospel, at 16:13 and following. The speculation around Jesus is intense, given that, by this stage, his name has become well-known, according to Mark. It’s fascinating to “hear” people in the passage say that John has risen from the dead and that is why miraculous powers are evident – a note of magic and superstition hangs in the air here, and at one and the same time the belief in the resurrection of the dead is allied to it. In another sense, it’s evident that many of those who have heard about Jesus, and perhaps even heard him in person and seen him, don’t know what to make of him!
Such confusion about identity, origin, and purpose brings with it fear and suspicion. We shouldn’t forget that it was Herod’s father who was reportedly the one to have all the new born male children slaughtered around the time of Jesus’ birth – that’s not the sort of thing that is going to fade quickly from the common memory, nor indeed from a family’s memory. And that took place in an atmosphere bubbling with fear, suspicion and threat.
It’s good at this stage to ask ourselves why we do, from time to time, feel fear and threatened, perhaps even and often irrationally. Fear very often builds in us if we feel that we are about to lose something, or be attacked over something, or are about to be tackled by one stronger than us. Fear seems to suggest that I do not feel I have the right tools or strength or support to get through a particular moment or experience. The feeling that we are about to lose something – not just material supports, but emotional, psychological, spiritual goods, my reputation, my good name, my character as others know me and accept me – this fear can be destructive and can consume us if it isn’t checked. For Herod, fear was a part of his life, perhaps even from day to day. His power and authority were, in a very real way, “borrowed”, and could be taken away, effectively, at any moment, by any number of people or groups. That would be the end of him, if such were to happen. Losing power and control can unhinge those who are overly attached to it.
So, Herod’s curiosity here is borne almost completely out of fear for the instability of his own position and power base. He thought he had dealt with John the Baptist once and for all, and now he appears to be back on the scene, and a good deal more difficult to handle now.
What fears am I asked to address in my life, and how can I begin to do that? It’s almost certainly the case that, if I try to do it by myself, in my own private way and bubble, it won’t go well. For many of us, the fear of judgement – what I think others will think of me if I say something, reveal something about myself, open up on a certain issue – can be suffocating and strangulating. Unfortunately, trying to second guess other people’s thoughts and opinions about me is itself a very vicious cycle – indeed, it is a sign of the afflictive thought of vainglory at work in us! Being afraid that someone else will judge me, and judge me in such a way that I feel put down, misunderstood, no longer accepted, or worse, no longer loved, often robs us of the words which we need to speak and which begin to open a door in me for me and for another. Again, we might remember Benedict XVI’s words which were meant to provide both invitation and encouragement, and especially to young people today – open the door to Christ, don’t be afraid to open the door to Christ: you have nothing to lose, and he has everything to give!
When we live in fear we have already, effectively, lost everything!
Curiosity. We might just say a word about this rather peculiar condition, a condition which the Cistercian Fathers did not approve of at all! In short, curiosity is the sin of caring about the things that we shouldn’t care about! Curiosity allows us to let our eyes and ears and senses wander over a host of things, topics, areas, which have no real bearing on the important matters in my life – and for all of us, the most important matter in my life is coming to know Jesus and encounter him. So, if things don’t serve that central goal then we always have to put them in a proper, and that means a less important, perspective. Perhaps we might be familiar with the saying that we “blow things out of all proportion”. Some people have a gift for this – to greatly inflate the importance or significance of particular events, or comments, or meetings. It often leads to an almost hyper way of living – a constant and unremitting emotional outpouring! To be able to put something in proportion, and allow its context to set the boundaries, is a skill which both diminishes the unimportant, and allows more important matters to come into relief. It is always a very good practice to move aside matters which, effectively, are of little importance in my life but which I have allowed to swamp me and eat up my attention. In fact, the discipline of prayer does precisely this – placing ourselves in God’s presence, we acknowledge him and praise him, and then we can present to him all the things that we have noticed and ask him to shuffle them into place. Part of the art of praying is precisely that we should be curious about God – care enough to be ready to see him, in whatever way he presents himself to us, and that will not always be either the obvious way or the way which we expect or want. But that does not mean that he is not already smiling in my direction and waiting for me to smile back.
What are the important things that you should care about in your own life?
What a wonderful writer Mark the Evangelist was! Suddenly in “real time”, as it were, he allows us to be caught up into a mist which transports us back, in Herod’s memory, to a fateful evening of celebration and licentious feasting, to explain how John came to be beheaded. Mark is involving us in a very direct way and wants us to make the most of it by seeing, hearing, smelling, and being upset by what we see and hear. We are about to be witnesses to a very grim climax which claws in the tawdry lives of a great many people – and all circle around the discomforting integrity of the Baptist.
Why was it against the law for Herod to have Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife? Well, because he was still alive and to all intents and purposes still married to her! So, not only is this an adulterous relationship – Herodias is now Herod’s concubine – but it has more than a hint of incest, because of the relationship by marriage which has been established between Herod and Herodias through Philip. This is a vitally important aspect to realise – the whole scene takes place within a scene, a context which is dictated by moral turpitude and lawlessness. To make matters worse, the circumstances are boiling over with a complex stew of emotions – anger, jealousy, hatred, suspicion, the desire for revenge, fear, confusion, vainglory, pride, and humiliation. When these sorts of emotions are running wild no good can be achieved, right thinking isn’t even on the cards, and thoughts for the good of the other are notable by their absolute absence.
Herod’s taking Herodias, of course, shows utter disdain for any kind of established relationship – even marriage becomes subject to the flat out desires of one for another. Relationships, in this sense, are made entirely subjective – they must conform to my needs and to no one else’s. Such treatment of others is always set to be destructive, because the other is something to be used and exploited, not a person to be respected. While these people are painted almost as caricatures, and their lifestyles virtually soap opera here, the exaggeration – if such it is – always carries with it the ring of truth. And that ring resonates in all our lives – while we may not run to this extreme, we are capable of reducing personhood in the other by our disdainful and selfish treatment of them.
This complexity is continued in the figure of Herod himself, and the evident tensions which are at work in him. He is a restless individual! He is at once afraid of John, knowing him to be a good and holy man, fascinated by what he has to say, and perhaps even how he says it, and yet deeply disturbed by the same man and what he says. This, of course, is the power of the word which John speaks – it is a word which, as we know from the Gospel, is rooted in an invitation to repentance, which always begins with a personal acceptance that conversion is necessary. Herod undoubtedly hears this for what it is – perhaps even he realises that he has a word of conversion banging on the door of his heart, and yet he has not the courage – nor humility – to let it truly enter in. Well, just think what he stands to lose!
And do we, from time to time, see conversion like that – if I answer this call fully what do I stand to lose? If we only see conversion from that perspective then it’s not going to happen.
For one who appears to be in control – Herod is, after all, a vassal king, an appointed tyrant – Herod exercises very little real control. And what control he has he is entirely unwilling to relinquish. As in many situations in which power might be lost by force, control is usually exercised by force in return.
None of us likes to let go the control we exercise in our own lives – it requires levels of trust which mean that we must place ourselves with singular vulnerability in the hands of another or others. Perhaps we make the mistake sometimes of thinking that, when we hand over control in our lives to God we become, in some way, neutered, powerless, set adrift. But nothing could be further from the truth! To give God control is to say: You know the path ahead for me, you know the outcome of my actions, you know the fullness of the plan which you have always had for me, and I trust that you have all this in your mind for me and will guide me. Be God for me! And God in return says: I am God for you, and I have my plan for you, and I will walk with you as you take the road. Now, be the son, be the daughter that I love, and be yourself as I hold your hand in all this!
God in control never means that I am a passive passenger in my own life.
How anger perverts! How long has Herodias been plotting her revenge on John the Baptist? Nursing this anger in her heart it really has consumed her. Those of us who have followed the afflictive thoughts series – and you can still access it here by clicking on this link – will know that anger is a thought which is a secondary one, one of motivation, a thought which has its origin elsewhere, a thought which has its beginnings in the complaint that I cannot get what I want. John has publicly humiliated Herodias by calling her out. All Galilee knows her for what she is and for what she has done, and the cuckolding of her husband Philip is a shameful thing. But she cannot get at John because Herod, of all people, stands in the way!
Revenge – and this is precisely what is being served up here on a dish – is entirely antithetical to the Gospel message. Revenge says that forgiveness has limits. Revenge says that there are circumstances, and times, and events, which not only warrant, but indeed demand retaliation. Revenge is the action which finds its justification in and continues to justify eye for eye and tooth for tooth.
What makes this act on the part of Herodias doubly scandalous is the very fact that she is deeply mired in wrongdoing herself – John’s condemnation of the relationship is well placed and right. This, again, through the high drama of this story, touches us deeply – even when we know we are in the wrong we can react very badly to criticism and correction. And we are past masters at rationalising our wrong-doing. Humility – truthful living – asks us to take responsibility for what we do – good and bad – and respond well to the words that are offered to us for our continued growth. Such experiences are never easy: humiliation is difficult to bear, the loss of face and reputation is tough to take, the reactions of others to what we might have done can crush us. In this light, Pope Francis says something which we could well recall and think over in his challenging letter on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate:
“Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. Without them, there is no humility or holiness. If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness. The holiness that God bestows on his Church comes through the humiliation of his Son. He is the way. Humiliation makes you resemble Jesus; it is an unavoidable aspect of the imitation of Christ. For “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21). In turn, he reveals the humility of the Father, who condescends to journey with his people, enduring their infidelities and complaints (cf. Ex 34:6-9; Wis 11:23-12:2; Lk 6:36). For this reason, the Apostles, after suffering humiliation, rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for [Jesus’] name” (Acts 5:41).
“Here I am not speaking only about stark situations of martyrdom, but about the daily humiliations of those who keep silent to save their families, who prefer to praise others rather than boast about themselves, or who choose the less welcome tasks, at times even choosing to bear an injustice so as to offer it to the Lord. “If when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval” (1 Pet 2:20). This does not mean walking around with eyes lowered, not saying a word and fleeing the company of others. At times, precisely because someone is free of selfishness, he or she can dare to disagree gently, to demand justice or to defend the weak before the powerful, even if it may harm his or her reputation.
“I am not saying that such humiliation is pleasant, for that would be masochism, but that it is a way of imitating Jesus and growing in union with him. This is incomprehensible on a purely natural level, and the world mocks any such notion. Instead, it is a grace to be sought in prayer: “Lord, when humiliations come, help me to know that I am following in your footsteps”.
“To act in this way presumes a heart set at peace by Christ, freed from the aggressiveness born of overweening egotism. That same peacefulness, the fruit of grace, makes it possible to preserve our inner trust and persevere in goodness, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23:4) or “a host encamp against me” (Ps 27:3). Standing firm in the Lord, the Rock, we can sing: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps 4:8). Christ, in a word, “is our peace” (Eph 2:14); he came “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:79). As he told Saint Faustina Kowalska, “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to my mercy”. So let us not fall into the temptation of looking for security in success, vain pleasures, possessions, power over others or social status. Jesus says: “My peace I give to you; I do not give it to you as the world gives peace” (Jn 14:27).Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, 118-121
The anger which Herodias has fed drives her to the most appalling extreme – the use, and abuse, of her own daughter in order to get what she wants.
We cannot ignore the very overtly sexual nature of this scene – indeed, over the centuries it has always been depicted in the most lurid of lights. From the beginning we need to note that the Gospel says that her daughter is a girl, and the Greek text is just as explicit and precise in this. So, Herodias pitches a child into what must have been an almost orgiastic place – again, we must remember that the men and women were separately enjoying the festivities, so this girl, named elsewhere and by tradition as Salome, is introduced into a hall filled with men, of all ranks and backgrounds, who have been drinking and eating and who knows what, probably for the length of the day, and she is made to dance for them. This is the ultimate exploitation of a child, and done in order that Herod, and his guests, be “delighted” by her and her dance.
Sexploitation is a term which is, effectively, a very modern one – but it describes a reality which is ancient. Sex, in all its varied forms and presentations, has always exercised a very particular allure. And it has always made room for the exploitation of all those involved in what has become, somewhat euphemistically and absurdly, described as a “trade” and “profession”. In our own day we are more and more graphically confronted by the use and abuse of the sexual dimension of the human person, and the dizzying confusion which also accompanies some questions around sexual identity. So, the only barely veiled scene now presented by Mark, while still shocking for us, is not surprising.
With all that said, we are confronted, in reading this passage and in the reflection which it provokes for us, by questions and thoughts around our own use of sex, sexual thought, sexuality and how it becomes invested in our day to day living, and how we shape and manage our own relationships, real and virtual, sexual and otherwise. The capacity to be able, on the one hand, to work positively with our own sexual identity, and needs and desires, accompanies us through life, and asks for a dynamic growth in personal maturity, and humility also. On the other hand, it meets us in the persons with whom we interact, and in the many and varied hues which describes our relationships with them. On top of this, we cannot be unaware that our society knows well how to sexualize and exploit our own sexual appetites and trigger moments, whether we consciously advert to them or unconsciously or subconsciously receive them. As with many things, sexuality and sexual feelings are transformed according to their circumstances and the prompts and elements which accompany them. While never really neutral, the sexual dimension of my personality can be given character, form and expression which changes with each new encounter and stimulus. Becoming aware of this, managing this, accepting this, integrating this, and allowing this to become the healthy part of me which is always personally me is the journey of a lifetime, and one which will challenge us to new awareness many times over.
But for the moment, we are faced by this catastrophe of manipulation. Perhaps in this lectio very deep experiences are being touched upon by some who are praying now, and painful memories of manipulation and control – sexual and otherwise – are being recalled, even unbidden. For all of those, this lectio divina and encounter with Christ may be the gentle invitation that he makes towards your path of healing, and eventually, though it may seem impossible now and beyond you, to put those experiences into a place in your life where they belong but do not now control or shape you completely.
It’s enough to say, as we go on, that this girl dances before Herod and his guests. It’s a dance which deceives and disarms, and ultimately destroys all who take part. It is death dealing. Part of this child’s personality is destroyed and gone. Those who watch and take delight in this are destroyed by their encouragement of what happens and the consent which they give, and undoubtedly and above all by the sexualisation of this child. Herod is destroyed and finally loses control as he vows wildly in front of his guests and becomes ensnared. But then we noted at the beginning of this passage that the entire scene is one of moral turpitude – and it just keeps descending into what appears to be a bottomless pit. From this point of view, when we lose our moral compass, we really lose it.
So, what is our moral compass? It is much more than to be able to make decisions in the sphere of sexuality and the sexual aspect of our relationships. Morality embraces all of our life because it hinges on the reality of relationship, principally my responsible relationship to myself and to everything and everyone around me. It might be good at this moment to reflect very briefly on the Church’s position on how to make a good moral decision. The teaching is laid out with great clarity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1749 Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts. Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil.
I. THE SOURCES OF MORALITY
1750 The morality of human acts depends on:
– the object chosen;
– the end in view or the intention;
– the circumstances of the action.
The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the “sources,” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.
1751 The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.
In contrast to the object, the intention resides in the acting subject. Because it lies at the voluntary source of an action and determines it by its end, intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action. The end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action. The intention is a movement of the will toward the end: it is concerned with the goal of the activity. It aims at the good anticipated from the action undertaken. Intention is not limited to directing individual actions, but can guide several actions toward one and the same purpose; it can orient one’s whole life toward its ultimate end. For example, a service done with the end of helping one’s neighbor can at the same time be inspired by the love of God as the ultimate end of all our actions. One and the same action can also be inspired by several intentions, such as performing a service in order to obtain a favor or to boast about it.
1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbour) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).39
1754 The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.
II. GOOD ACTS AND EVIL ACTS
1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”).
The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.
1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.
1757 The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the three “sources” of the morality of human acts.
1758 The object chosen morally specifies the act of willing accordingly as reason recognizes and judges it good or evil.
1759 “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means.
1760 A morally good act requires the goodness of its object, of its end, and of its circumstances together.
1761 There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras 1749-1761
This teaching is to be applied each time we make a decision which governs whether we place a good or bad act – and above all it never simply depends upon me, or upon the criteria which I decide. Moral action, and whether it is good or bad, always affects others – how I behave always, in some way, touches the lives and wellbeing of other persons and situations.
It doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to see that the weave of the moral decision making by the protagonists in this passage of Scripture is entirely out of kilter with what constitutes morally good actions. And while we never, hopefully, find ourselves in these very extreme and harrowing situations, we do, all of us, have a desire to be morally good people, who make good decisions and act well and with fairness and justice towards others. In other words, we want to be people, fundamentally, who live out of Gospel charity towards our neighbour, towards ourselves, and towards God.
In the midst of all this, what about John the Baptist? It would seem that he has only been an excuse to relate this terrifying but entirely cautionary tale! Not so! John epitomises, and perhaps corrects, an all too commonly heard phrase today. In this matter, the Baptist is the one above all who “speaks truth to power”.
This phrase has become almost a byword today for people who stand up and make themselves heard about almost any issue, demanding change. The attitude and action are above all premised one one thing – what is truth? And again, today we are confronted with a dizzying variety of “truths”. In most cases, to speak truth to power is undoubtedly to confront corruption and the abuse of authority in order to obtain justice and restore the balance of the possession and exercise of rights. From the point of view of the preaching and living of the Gospel we should temper our views by recalling his words to the Ephesians:
“If we speak the truth in love, we shall grow in all ways into Christ”Ephesians 4:15
Here, speaking the truth has a very definite objective – to encourage our becoming more Christ-like. And it is done in love because we wish this for our brother and sister, not their humiliation. Love is not merely the patina which gives truth a certain hue or colour, it gives truth its depth and reveals it as an invitation to conversion. From this point of view, although the truth may be difficult to hear at times, it really sets us free from the broken way of life which has dogged us until now.
On the other side of this speaking is of course the undeniable fact that John pays the highest price for speaking truth to power. His witness means that his life is forfeit. This should bring us up short for a moment: how far am I willing to travel so that truth – witness to Jesus Christ – might really be the central dynamic in my life. There is no doubt that clinging to the Gospel, being seen to be a witness for the Church, a Church person, will bring its fair share of scorn and mockery, and perhaps, in this day and age, even a modicum of disbelief! But again – to what do I align myself? What are the principles which provide true structure in my life? What truth gives me life? The Baptist doesn’t lose his head for nothing!
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-