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John and Herod, With us Still

Well, we had a baptism scheduled for today, but for various reasons we’ve moved it to next Sunday instead, so we’ll have multiple baptisms next week. And to be honest, I was a bit relieved at this change, given the Gospel reading for today: the beheading of John the Baptist. I don’t know why, but every three years smack in the middle of summer, they give us this reading, leaving us to grapple with what on earth it means for us today.  

The end of John’s life actually has its own feast day, on August 29, called The Feast of the Decollation. “Decollation” is another word for “beheading.” Who knew?  In fact, John the Baptist has a few feast days that most of us probably don’t know about, not all of which are observed in the Episcopal church. There’s the Feast of the Nativity, which was last month, in June. That one we do observe. The Feast of the Decollation next month in August (one we don’t observe). And then three additional feasts, all devoted to the three separate findings of John the Baptist’s head by his followers: once right after his death, then again in the third century, and then again the ninth century.  There’s even one called The Feast of the Transfer of the Right Hand of the Holy Forerunner (“The Forerunner” is another name for John), to remember the transfer of the remains of John’s right hand from Antioch to Istanbul. You can’t make this up! So, not only in his birth and baptizing does John give us reasons to celebrate, but also in his death and dismemberment.John’s story begins in Luke’s Gospel, where he’s born six months before Jesus to the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary’s cousin. From his conception, John was regarded as the “Forerunner” of Jesus, the one who would fill the expected role of arriving right before the Messiah to announce his appearance. On the Feast of John’s Nativity in June, we remember how, already in utero, John was a prophet because he leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb as Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home, pregnant with Jesus.

The next time we meet John in the Gospels, he’s an adult, preaching and baptizing along the Jordan River, and here’s where his story becomes more familiar to us. One day, Jesus joins the throng of John’s followers and is himself baptized by John before he goes off and begins his own ministry of preaching and healing.  Soon after that, John is imprisoned for preaching against the personal and political life of King Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas was the son of the Herod familiar to us in the Christmas story, who, like that Herod, his father, was a Jew put in a position of authority by the occupying Roman government.  It wasn’t a popular position, especially to a strict Jew like John, who was less willing to accommodate the occupying Roman forces than Jews like Herod. John no doubt had a lot of complaints against Herod and all he stood for, but the one we hear about in this passage is about Herod’s marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. (Presumably, though the story isn’t really clear on this, the two of them got together before she divorced her first husband.) So Herod puts John in prison, where he continues to speak out against him–we can assume, I think, for much more than just his marriage.

And all that brings us to today’s passage. Herod holds a banquet to celebrate his own birthday (just the sort of thing he’d do!), and invites all sorts of important people to it.  At one point, his wife’s daughter–it seems her daughter from her first marriage but that’s not really clear either; in any case, probably not Herod’s daughter, too–dances before Herod and his guests.  Herod is so pleased with the dance that he offers the girl whatever she wants, even half his kingdom. At which point you know this isn’t going to end well.  She consults her mother, who has come to hate John for publicly denouncing her marriage, and her mother tells her to ask for John’s head–on a platter.  Herod, while not wanting John to die, feels he has no choice but to honor his oath, so he obliges, and John is beheaded.  

guess there are some lessons you could draw from this passage, lessons like Don’t steal your brother’s wife, Don’t make rash oaths, Don’t let your pride make you a fool.  We can learn a lot from Herod’s stupidity, but that’s all (I hope) pretty obvious. Instead, the meaning of this story to me lies in its meaninglessness. John’s death was sad, senseless and cruel.  His was a life cut short–he couldn’t have been but thirty–and just because he spoke his conscience to a capricious, vicious, insecure and too-powerful leader.

As is evident from the multiple feast days celebrating him, John and his remains have been a subject of fascination in Christian history.  Everywhere you go, it seems like someone has a piece of him stashed away in a bejeweled box or crypt for Christian pilgrims to come see.  Without meaning to, I myself have stumbled on various of John’s body parts four different times: parts of his skull in Rome, Istanbul and Munich, and one of his fingers in the museum in Kansas City (so random!).  Apparently his right hand is in a monastery in Montenegro.  A bone from his wrist is in a monastery in France.  A piece of his arm is in Istanbul (next to part of his skull).  And just a few years ago more of his skull and a tooth were found in Bulgaria.

John is everywhere, literally. But he’s everywhere in a much more serious and real sense: he’s in every man and woman throughout history and still today, and there are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, who speak their conscience and then die a senseless death at the hands of some tyrant like Herod.  I might have chosen something different to read this morning had it been up to me, but it’s good for us to remember that even on such seemingly carefree summer days as we’re in now, there are autocrats and dictators (like Kim, like Assad, like Putin) and people under them suffering and dying pointlessly, like John the Baptist.  As we remember John’s death, let’s honor them, give thanks for our liberties, and work to make the world a place that’s as safe for others as it is for us.