Wednesday, July 14, 2021
Piercing the Veils: A Sermon Delivered at St. Barts, NYC July 12, 2021
Nowadays, we all seem to be living in the world foreseen by the old western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s one of Jimmy Stewart’s better outings, a story about an honorable United States Senator (I told you it was an old movie) who goes back to the West to attend the funeral of an old friend, played by John Wayne. The Senator’s first claim to fame, and the beginning of his glorious career as a stateman, was that he stood up to the local bad man, Liberty Valance, and ended his career of violence by shooting him. We viewers come to see that the Senator did stand up to Valance, but Valance had already shot him once, when Wayne’s character shoots the villain, firing at the same time as the Senator fires his last round, which goes wide. Telling the story to the local newspaper editor, the Senator is stunned to see him tear up his notes of the interview. The Senator asks if he isn’t going to use the story, and the editor answers him, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Life in 2021. This all seems a far way off from Jesus of Nazareth, but so is the Gospel reading for today—it alludes to Herod’s belief that Jesus is John the Baptist retuned from the dead, and the people’s belief that Jesus is Elijah, or simply a prophet, but a mighty one, like one of the prophets of old. But the balance of today’s Gospel tells the story of the death of John the Baptist. Unusually, we have a non-Christian account of the events that partially tracks the Gospel account. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish collaborator with Rome, tells us in his Jewish Antiquities that Herod Antipas fell in love with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip’s wife, who was the daughter of Aristobulus, their brother. Antipas proposed to her, and they married. [JA, 18.110]. Herod Antipas’s divorced wife complained to her father, who went to war against Herod, wiping out Herod’s army. Before this, Herod had killed John the Baptist, who Josephus described as “this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.” Herod, feared that John the Baptist would use his great influence John had over the people to raise a rebellion,” and had him executed. Josephus concludes his account by noting that “the Jews thought that the destruction of his army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure with him.” No bewitching dance, no cruel request from Herodias and her daughter for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Just a politically expedient killing in a prison. But, of course, Josephus was presenting an account of his people aimed at protecting himself, and incidentally, them, by showing their great loyalty to virtue and moral government. We know that there was a Salome. Josephus identifies her as the daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, confirming the Gospels on that point. He also tells us that she married twice; first to her uncle Philip the Tetrarch, and then, after his death in 34 CE), she married her cousin Aristobulus of Chalcis, making her queen of Chalcis and of Armenia Minor. So however John the Baptist died, Salome seems to have made out all right. But the Gospel story of her dance, Herod’s promise, and Salome’s demand of John’s head has been percolating through our culture for two millenia, and has been immortalized not just in our holy scripture, but in art, drama, film, and in just about every kind of media you can think of—if you look hard enough you can even find “Salome’s Dance” as a plot point in Marvel Comics. Brad Brucknell takes us through a lot of those media representations, especially Oscar Wide’s 1892 play, Salome, and its offshoots. It’s Wilde who created the “Dance of the Seven Veils” that Salome is said to have used to charm Herod, and she chooses, in Wilde’s play, to seek his head not for her mother’s revenge, but for her own desire to own the Baptist. Brucknell points out that Wilde’s play can be boiled down to the classic dichotomy of the virgin and the wanton femme fatale.  More recently, Adeena Karasick has sought to reclaim Salome; in her 2014 article “Salomé: Woman of Valor,” Karasick answers back that “Salomé has been serially exploited by Gustave Flaubert, Charles Bryant, Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss and Atom Egoyan, forever entrenching her in social consciousness as a dangerous woman, a female praying mantis who both literally and metaphorically cannibalizes the head of her lover.” And there’s truth in this—the villain in the Gospel story is Herodias, not Salome, who simply obeyed her mother’s command. And Herodias had reason to fear John, as Josephus’s account makes clear. Looking soberly at both stories, John the Baptist was executed for posing a danger to Herod’s rule, whether or not Herod wanted to kill him. The Gospel portrays John as Jesus’s forerunner or role model in his death as well as in his ministry. Both challenge the Imperial domination system of Rome. Both earn the sympathy of the ruler who ultimately orders his execution—Pilate’s evident reluctance to kill Jesus matches Herod’s desire to keep John alive. So here’s a different legend: John and Jesus each had an uncanny ability to reach the conscience of those who had been coopted into the imperial domination system, those who had learned to live by its rules. If Wilde’s fervid play has any poetic truth in it, it is that Salome wanted to find herself in the prophet, to cherish him, and change herself, trapped like a fly in amber by the trappings of the Court of her step-father. And we know that both Pilate and Herod found within themselves a stirring of conscience, a desire for something other, something better, when confronted by these inconvenient Galilean prophets. These hard-faced, hard-hearted rulers within a corrupt regime briefly found their better selves in engaging with these prophets, and found themselves touched by their innocence, their righteousness. We live in a world that is wracked with corruption and lies. The most basic facts are turned into partisan battles—do vaccines work? Are our elections rigged—and all of this is done without evidence, just by shameless assertion. The temptation to tune out, to not care, to withdraw, can become irresistible. But if even hardened tyrants like Pilate and Herod can hear the sweetness and purity of mercy, of kindness, then surely we can too. In a way, we are Pilate, we are Herod—I don’t mean that we are as jaded or cynical as they were. But like them, we have a choice: We can open our hearts to the fundamental truth that the keystone of life is love, and do our best to fan that truth into a flame that will warm our hearts for life, or we can, maybe sadly, reject it. Neither Pilate nor Herod had the courage to change. But we can. We can take the side of John the Baptist, of Jesus, and we can try to live lives grounded in kindness, in letting go of grudges and resentments. We can try to offer our help to those who need it, and recognize that we are all connected. And if we do, we can dissolve the hard places in our souls that have grown over the years without our realizing it. And in that small way, we can join Jesus and John, walking in their way of compassion and love. In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  ELH , Summer, 1993, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 503-526.  Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues No. 26 (Spring 2014), pp. 147-157.