Friday, February 04, 2011

Two Kingdoms

Today's Gospel:
King Herod heard about Jesus, for his fame had become widespread,
and people were saying,
“John the Baptist has been raised from the dead;
That is why mighty powers are at work in him.”
Others were saying, “He is Elijah”;
still others, “He is a prophet like any of the prophets.”
But when Herod learned of it, he said,
“It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.”
Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison
on account of Herodias,
the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod,
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him
and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man,
and kept him in custody.
When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed,
yet he liked to listen to him.
Herodias had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday,
gave a banquet for his courtiers, his military officers,
and the leading men of Galilee.
His own daughter came in and performed a dance
that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl,
“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her,
“I will grant you whatever you ask of me,
even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
Her mother replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request,
“I want you to give me at once on a platter
the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed,
but because of his oaths and the guests
he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner
with orders to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter
and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it,
they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
A chill always runs down my spine reading this Gospel story, it could well be set in the Pornopolis of Brighton.
Just as the Exercises of St Ignatius focus on a meditation of the choice between the two cities, so I suppose the Gospel writers are trying to compare an earthly kingdom with the Kingdom of God, by contrasting the ascetic John the Baptist who announces the coming Heavenly Kingdom with sensual Herod who is willing to give up half his worldly kingdom to a dancing sexey nymphette of a niece!

John denounces the adulterous incestuous relationship of Herod and Herodias, at the birthday party we are given the impression of excess, of drink, of boasting and of a reckless king unable to control himself. Are we even to imagine a sexual relationship with Salome? With Herod we are to imagine anything is possible. His is a corrupt court in which a young girl offered anything she might want conspires with her mother and requests a bloody severed head hacked off the body of the prophet of God, so much for childhood innocence. The sin of Herod and Herodias corrupts the child drawing her into their tangled web.

I think the reader is supposed to see the whole courtly gang as being in opposition to God, blithely ignorant of God, yet destructive of him. We are also supposed to understand that whatever the Kingdom of God is about, it isn't about licence, indulgence, sexual promiscuity or lack of restraint, these things lead us to something monstrous and inhuman.

It is the choice between sensuality an ascesis.

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