Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Salome with the Head of John the Baptist -- Andrea Solario (c 1500)
The Gospel passage for this Sunday records a remarkably gruesome episode – the decapitation of John the Baptist, and, to make it even more grotesque, the presentation of his severed head on a platter in the middle of a party! In just a few verses Mark manages to convey a compelling image of the ways in which different forms of human wickedness – the brutality of absolute power, the consequences of adolescent vanity, the viciousness of revenge -- can combine to create and sustain a world in which the friends and followers of its victims can only  accept such horrors quietly as inescapable realities.

The episode is recounted in a context that characterizes the whole of Mark’s Gospel – the question of Jesus’ identity. What are we to make of him? Is he the Messiah? Is he another prophet like John? The fate of the Baptist is a ghastly catastrophe, yet even those who first read this passage, and wrestled with this question, could not have failed to know that Jesus himself had died a death scarcely less brutal. The difference, of course, is to be found in the Resurrection.

Christ on the Cross - Viktor Vasnetsov (1896)
The disciples of Jesus, just like the disciples of John, ‘came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb’. What happened thereafter, however, changed everything. It did not undo the fact of his execution on a cross, but it did transform its significance. It is precisely this transformation that the reading from Ephesians means to explicate. In the death of Jesus, God ‘has made known to us the mystery of his will . . . a plan for the fullness of time’. ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance’ we have ‘heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation’.

The death of John is a display of human will at its worst. Initially, the death of Jesus looks pretty much the same -- the outcome of political power, popular sentiment and sectarian jealousy. But God's ways are not our ways, and strangely, the mystery of the Resurrection shows Christ on the Cross to be God's saving will.

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