Monday, August 29, 2011

Beheading of John the Baptizer

The story of John's beheading is tailor-made for a novel or movie, having all the necessary elements: an unjustly imprisoned hero; a femme fatale; luxury; power; politics; a sexy dancing girl; drunken bravado; murder. 

Here is St. Mark's version of the story: "For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, 'It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.' So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, 'Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.' And he promised her with an oath, 'Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.'
She went out and said to her mother, 'What shall I ask for?' 'The head of John the Baptist,' she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: 'I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.'

The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb."

Herod Antipater was probably born pre-20 BC and died after 39 AD. Known by the nickname Antipas, he was a 1st-century AD ruler of Galilee and Perea, and bore the title of tetrarch = "ruler of a quarter". After inheriting his territories when the kingdom of his father, Herod the Great, was divided upon the latter's death in 4 BC, Antipas ruled them as a client state of the Roman Empire. He was responsible for building projects at Sepphoris and Betharamphtha, and more important for the construction of his capital, Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Named in honor of his patron, the Emperor Tiberius, the city later became a center of rabbinic learning.

Antipas divorced his first wife, Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, in favour of Herodias, who had formerly been married to Antipas' brother Herod Philip I. Aside from occasioning a disapproving rebuke from the Baptizer, Antipas' divorce added a personal grievance to previous disputes with Aretas over territory on the border of Perea and Nabatea. The resulting war proved disastrous for Antipas. A Roman counter-offensive was ordered by Tiberius, but abandoned when he died in 37 AD. In 39 AD Antipas' nephew, Agrippa I, accused him of conspiracy against the new Roman emperor, Caligula, who sent him and Herodias into exile in Gaul. Antipas  died there at an unknown date. 

The Synoptic Gospels agree that Herod had imprisoned John because he reproved Herod for divorcing his wife, Phasaelis, and for then unlawfully taking Herodias, wife of his brother Herod Philip I. On Herod's birthday, Herodias' daughter, presumably Herod's niece, and traditionally named Salome, danced before the king and his guests: described by Mark as "high officials...military commanders...and the leading men of Galilee." Mark's observation that Salome's dancing pleased Herod so much that, in his drunkenness, he promised to give her anything she desired, up to half of his kingdom, depicts Herod as a randy royal. When the young Salome asks her mother what she should request, perhaps innocently, perhaps teasingly, Herodias, no doubt with a sneering smile on her face, sends Salome back to demand the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. Herod undoubtedly, blinks his eyes, swallows hard and blanches at the request, and very reluctantly agrees, out of human respect for his leering cronies who were probably sitting on the edge of their lounges, waiting to see what he'd do. He gives the order to execute John in the prison, by beheading.

Jewish historian Flavius Josephus relates in his Antiquities of the Jews that Herod, in fact, killed John, stating that Herod did so, "lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his [John's] power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), [so Herod] thought it best [to put] him to death." Josephus further states that many of the Jews believed that the military disaster which fell upon Herod at the hands of Aretas, his father-in-law, Phasaelis' father, was God's punishment for his unrighteous behavior.

John the Baptizer became a popular saint early on. The liturgical commemoration of his beheading is almost as old as that commemorating his nativity, one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Eastern and Western liturgies. Believe it or not, the Eastern Christians celebrate several feasts related to the finding of John the Baptizer's head.  The First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist is celebrate on February 24. According to Church tradition after John's execution, his disciples buried his body at Sebaste, but Herodias (?) took his severed head and buried it in a dung heap. Later, St. Joanna, of Herod's steward, secretly dug up the head and buried it on the Mount of Olives where it remained hidden for centuries.

The First Finding is said to have occurred in the 4th century. The property on the Mount of Olives where the head was buried had passed into the possession of a government official, who later became a monk, taking the name Innocent. Innocent built a church and a monastic cell there on his property. When he began to dig the foundation, a vessel with the head of John the Baptist was uncovered. Fearful that the relic might be abused by unbelievers, Innocent is said to have hid it again in the same place where he had found it. Upon his death the church fell into ruin and was destroyed.

The Second Finding is said to have occurred in the year 452. During the days of Constantine the Great, two monks on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem reportedly experienced visions of John the Baptizer, who revealed to them the location of his head. Uncovering the relic, they placed it in a sack and proceeded home. Along the way they encountered an unnamed potter and gave him the bag to carry, not telling him what it was. St. John the Forerunner is then said to have appeared to the potter and ordered him to keep the bag and to flee from the careless, lazy monks. He took the head home with him, and before his death he placed it in a container and gave it to his sister. 

After some time, a hieromonk by the name of Eustathius, an Arian, came into possession of the head, using it to attract followers to his teaching. He then buried it in a cave, near Emesa, where a monastery was eventually built. In the year 452 John the Baptizer is said to have appeared to Archimandrite Marcellus of this monastery, and revealed where his head was hidden: in a water jar buried in the earth. The relic was brought into the city of Emesa, and was later transferred to Constantinople.

The Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist is celebrated on May 25. John's head was said to have been transferred to Comana in Cappadocia during a period of Muslim raids, around 820, and hidden in the ground during the period of iconoclastic persecution. When the veneration of icons was finally restored in 850, Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople (847-857) is said to have had a vision in which the place where John's head had been hidden was made known. The patriarch communicated this to Emperor Michael III, who sent a delegation to Comana where the head was found. Afterwards, the head was again transferred to Constantinople, and here, on May 25, it was placed in a church at the imperial court.

Over the centuries, it has been noted that there are many discrepancies in the various legends and claimed relics of the Baptizer's head throughout the Christian world. Even Muslim tradition claims that it was interred at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus! I think it's safe to say that no one knows where it is and, in the end, does it really matter?

St. Ambrose, in a section from his work On Virgins, Book 3.26 reflects on the story: "And since we must not cursorily pass by the mention of so great a man, let us consider who he was, by whom, on what account, how, and at what time he was slain. A just man, he is put to death by adulterers, and the penalty of a capital crime is turned off by the guilty on to the judge. Again the reward of the dancer is the death of the prophet. Lastly (a matter of honour even to all barbarians), the cruel sentence is given in the midst of banqueting and festivities, and the news of the deadly crime is carried from the banquet to the prison, and then from the prison to the banquet. How many crimes are there in one wicked act!

A banquet of death is set out with royal luxury, and when a larger concourse than usual had come together, the daughter of the queen, sent for from within the private apartments, is brought forth to dance in the sight of men. What could she have learnt from an adulteress but loss of modesty? Is anything so conducive to lust as with unseemly movements thus to expose in nakedness those parts of the body which either nature has hidden or custom has veiled, to sport with the looks, to turn the neck, to loosen the hair? Fitly was the next step an offence against God. For what modesty can there be where there is dancing and noise and clapping of hands?

'Then,' it is said, 'the king being pleased, said unto the damsel, that she should ask of the king whatsoever she would. Then he swore that if she asked he would give her even the half of his kingdom.' See how worldly men themselves judge of their worldly power, so as to give even kingdoms for dancing. But the damsel, being taught by her mother, demanded that the head of John should be brought to her on a dish. That which is said that 'the king was sorry,' is not repentance on the part of the king, but a confession of guilt, which is, according to the wont of the divine rule, that they who have done evil condemn themselves by their own confession. 'But for their sakes which sat with him,"'it is said. What is more base than that a murder should be committed in order not to displease those who sat at meat? 'And,' it follows, 'for his oath's sake.' What a new religion! He had better have forsworn himself. The Lord therefore in the Gospel bids us not to swear at all, that there be no cause for perjury, and no need of offending. And so an innocent man is slain that an oath be not violated. I know which to have in the greatest horror. Perjury is more endurable than are theoaths of tyrants.

Who would not think when he saw some one running from the banquet to the prison, that orders had been given to set the prophet free? Who, I say, having heard that it was Herod's birthday, and of the state banquet, and the choice given to the damsel of choosing whatever she wished, would not think that the man was sent to set John free? What has cruelty in common with delicacies? What have death and pleasure in common? The prophet is hurried to suffer at a festal time by a festal order, by which he would even wish to be set free; he is slain by the sword, and his head is brought on a platter. This dish was well suited to their cruelty, in order that their insatiate savageness might be feasted.

Look, most savage king, at the sights worthy of thy feast. Stretch forth thy right hand, that nothing be wanting to thy cruelty, that streams of holy blood may pour down between thy fingers. And since the hunger for such unheard-of cruelty could not be satisfied by banquets, nor the thirst by goblets, drink the blood pouring from the still flowing veins of the cut-off head. Behold those eyes, even in death, the witnesses of thy crime, turning away from the sight of the delicacies. The eyes are closing, not so much owing to death, as to horror of luxury. That bloodless golden mouth, whose sentence thou couldst not endure, is silent, and yet thou fearest. Yet the tongue, which even after death is wont to observe its duty as when living, condemned, though with trembling motion, the incest. This head is borne to Herodias: she rejoices, she exults as though she had escaped from the crime, because she has slain her judge."

The Collect for today's liturgy of the Beheading of John the Baptizer suggests the direction we might take, having ourselves reflected on all this:

Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the
Baptizer was sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by 
preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and 
holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; 
and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, 
boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; 
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns 
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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