Herod and Stillness

By Cathy George

Early Christians on the Scottish Isle of Iona first used the phrase “a thin place” to describe the experience of sensing the presence of God in the midst of human experience. It is a place where the membrane between this world and the invisible, eternal, beyond is thin.

This chapel, on this island, the quiet here this morning, the freshness of the summer air, and the glassy lake: it is a thin place. A place to come away, and apart from the busyness of life to pay attention to the unseen and strengthen the assurance of the presence of God within each one of us.

In stillness clarity comes to us. The truth is shown to us in stillness, in places and moments like this when we have come to share in prayer and Communion.

The lesson from Mark’s Gospel opens with news of Jesus’ growing prominence in the region. He’s casting out demons, curing people with diseases, and the word is out: someone has been raised from the dead.

King Herod hears of it. As others are guessing who it is that Jesus has brought back to life, Herod is holding out hope that it is John the Baptist. Filled with shame and regret at ordering his beheading at his own birthday party, Herod announces: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Sorry, no such luck, Herod.

Why did King Herod esteem John the Baptist, this desert aesthetic monk of Christianity? John’s life was an austere religious life devoted to prayer, and contemplation. He and Jesus meet in utero. When Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that she is going to give birth to Jesus, she flees to the countryside for the first trimester. As she approaches the home of her older cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, comes out to greet Mary and the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps in her amniotic fluid for joy. In utero, fetus to fetus, the cousins recognize each other.

John in Elizabeth’s womb and Jesus in Mary’s, they were cousins who grew up together. John, an aesthetic eating a macrobiotic diet of locusts and wild honey, wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt. Jesus’ spiritual life finds him engaged in the public square, challenging rulers, and politicians and confronting the unjust civic and religious laws that exclude the poor and trample on the needy.

Years later, John is waist deep in the Jordan river baptizing those who have come to renew their Jewish faith. Jesus gets in line. When John tries to stand aside and let Jesus baptize him, Jesus refuses and is baptized by John in the river. What John and Jesus have in common is a passion for God which lands them both in some serious trouble: John is beheaded, Jesus is crucified.

Against the spiritual counsel of John the Baptist, Herod married his brother’s wife: Herodias. Herodias, accustomed to getting her way, is not pleased to learn that this pesky spiritual guide to her intended is telling him not to marry her. She nurses a grudge — a grudge serious enough to want him dead.

Herod, we learn, “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man.” When Herod heard John speak against his marrying Herodias, we are told he was “greatly perplexed” because he “liked to listen” to John. Herod is mixed up in some complex loyalties, a spiritual, marital dilemma before his birthday party even begins.

Mark’s Gospel tells the bloody story of Herod who gives himself a birthday party. Invitations go out to the prestigious courtiers and leaders of Galilee. Salome, his daughter, dances, bringing joy to the party. To impress his friends, Herod — the story tells us — “solemnly swears to give her anything she wants, even half his kingdom.” She is a young girl, and doesn’t know what to ask for, so she goes to her mother for advice. Ask for the head of John the Baptist’s head on a platter, her mother tells her. And that poor girl is sent on a gruesome mission by her parents.

Gore, betrayal, affairs, manipulating children, drinking at a birthday party and making a regrettable promise. Herod is between a rock and a hard place in a situation he brought on himself. What does he do? Does he go against his better nature, loose the integrity of making a promise before dignitaries?

The Bible tells us Herod is “deeply grieved.” He knew better. He got himself in this mess, lost his moral compass, caught up in the crowd and party. His desire to be true to his public oath trumps the spiritual authority he encounters in John the Baptist. Herod caves.

I can’t resist wondering what would have happened if the story took a different turn. Instead of ordering the beheading, what if Herod admitted he’d made a terrible mistake and would not behead a prophet of wisdom and virtue. Is it wishful thinking that Herod’s friends might have increased in respect for him if he had done this? Imagine the soldier ordered to behead the holy man and Herod’s daughter carrying the bloody platter to her mother, complicit in his evil decision.

It is not just Herod. We all make regrettable decisions.

In the sober light of day, when the party was over, I imagine Herod walking into the room where a servant was cleaning up pools of dried blood. And in that quiet, in that sober stillness, he was sorry, and asked to be forgiven. I hope he told his daughter he was sorry for what she was forced to do.

We are not unlike him when we turn a deaf ear to the truth, when we avoid the stillness where clarity and truth come to us. The truth is always there, for each one of us, ready to guide us to begin again.

Stillness, like we share here this morning, uncovers the truth in our lives. It is always there, available to us, near to us, waiting for us to stop and listen. So, let us close with stillness, sharing in the quiet of this Sunday morning hour as a new week begins to listen.

O God, in the stillness of this worship, may we grow more sure of you. You are often closest to us when we feel you have forgotten us. The toil and thought of daily life leave us but little time to think of you,
but though we may forget you, you never forget us. As we withdraw awhile from all without, may we find you anew within. Until all thought grows quiet, our work is hallowed, and faith reconstitutes
all common things as sacraments of love. So lead us to meet you, where we may have missed you before. Amen.

The Rev. Cathy George is chaplain of Epiphany School, Dorchester, Massachusetts. 

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