We are a people who love to tell stories. We tell stories to remember past events, we make up stories to entertain one another, we share stories that teach important truths, and we pass along stories to keep informed about what is happening in our world. In preparing for this homily, I spent much time thinking about recent stories in our lives that have prompted strong reactions. The stories about unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools; stories about our first Inuk Governor General, Mary Simon.
I’ve also been thinking about the different ways in which those stories are told. There is no denying the reality of unmarked graves of children at Residential Schools across Canada, but there are those who insist that the system was well-intentioned, that much good was done, and claims to the contrary are reactionary and inappropriately persecuting those who ran the schools. Many celebrated Mary Simon’s installation as Governor General for so many reasons, but there were those who suggested she was inadequate for the job because she speaks English and Inuktitut, not English and French.
When a story is being told, it is always important to consider carefully who is telling the story and why it is being told in a certain way.
The beheading of John the Baptist is a powerful and dramatic episode in scripture. So important that it has its own feast day on our calendar on 29 August. This event has been depicted again and again in art. Literature, paintings, plays, operas, sculptures, and more. And, in the way it is often told, this makes for a great, entertaining story.
As it is commonly depicted, this is a story about the death of a great prophet and one of the most significant figures in Christian history, certainly. But those events happen quite quickly and wrap up without much fuss toward the end of the story. The vast majority of the tale is about the deviousness and cunning of a pair of women, a mother-daughter team, and their willingness to use lust and sexuality to get what they want, no matter the consequences for others. It is a story about the foolishness of powerful men; men who are helpless in the face of feminine wiles and sexuality, who are easily swayed by revealing clothes and suggestive dancing. Men who should know better and who ought to guard more carefully against making foolish promises to such dangerous creatures as women.
Very few of these paint the girl, usually named Salome, as anything other than an icon of lust, temptation, manipulation, and villainy. In some depictions her mother takes a distant back seat, while she is the lead. Oscar Wilde’s famous play, on which more than one opera is based, suggests that Salome is herself angry with John the Baptist because he spurned her sexual advances while a prisoner in her step-father, Herod’s dungeon. With her mother’s blessing, she manipulates her step-father through his own lust for his step-daughter. She secures a promise that she may have anything she desires if she will perform the most erotic of dances for him. She does so purely to achieve her twisted revenge on John the Baptist who refused her, even going so far as to lasciviously kiss John’s severed head before it is entombed, forcing him to “love” her after all. It is a macabre tale, fascinating because it is so outrageous, so far beyond the pale, and worthy of anything the strangest writers of Hollywood might pen today.
However, when we compare this to the gospel passage we just heard, we can see quickly that this is not quite the story as Mark and Matthew tell it. The personalities and motivations of the characters have changed quite dramatically. If we look carefully at the language in scripture, the contrast becomes even more stark and somewhat disturbing.
Mark and Matthew both refer to the girl—she is not given a name in the gospels—as a korasion. (Gk: κοράσιον) Korasion is a rare word in scripture, and an odd word to use given what we think we know about this girl. There are other more straight-forward terms to describe a young woman. In fact, this word gets used in scripture on only two occasions: Matthew and Mark both use it to describe the little girl who Jesus raises from the dead—a story that we heard just two weeks ago—and here, in their description of the beheading of John the Baptist. It’s an odd word because it’s a diminutive way of calling someone a girl. The difference between a kitten and a kitty or pussy-cat. It emphasizes the juvenility and child status of the person being called korasion.
Mark and Matthew are going out of their way, using very specific language, to indicate that the girl who dances before Herod is very young. A little girl. Far from the lustful, manipulating, sexual predator that so much of our cultural record portrays her to be. In the tellings of this story by Mark and Matthew, the little girl is much more recognizable as a child being manipulated and exploited by her stunningly dysfunctional, morally reprehensible parents as a way of acting out their own disagreements and power struggles with one another. So helpless is this little girl that Mark and Matthew do not record her name. Salome is the name given her in the record left by Josephus, a first-century Romano-Jewish historian.
Scripture, not for the first time, shows us the story of John the Baptist and a little girl, two people helpless in the face of those who hold them prisoner, who wield total power over their lives, and it shows us the consequences of selfish systems that allow a few to arbitrate the welfare of the helpless, the marginalized, the forgotten, and the nameless. This is the story that our holy scripture, the inspired word of God given to us as divine revelation, tells. But this is maybe four or five hundred words between Matthew’s and Mark’s tellings of the Gospel. Why, in the paintings and sculptures and operas and books and plays and mountains of art about this moment have we entertained so wildly different a story? A story that has nothing to do with God’s presence with the helpless and the oppressed, nothing to do with the silencing of those who speak truth or the exploitation of children, but instead a story about villainous, wicked temptresses and foolish, lusty men?
And today, when we hear competing stories, stories of people being silenced met with stories that those people were being taught; stories of people being exploited met with stories that those people were being helped; stories of marginalized people being given voice and power met with stories about the unworthiness of those same people; how are we to respond? Are we to choose the story that makes for the most entertaining film? The outcome that makes us most happy and challenges us the least? The most predictable?
No. We, beloved people of God, are called to return to the truths revealed in scripture over and over again and to look for the imprisoned prophets and the nameless girls and to make our stand with them. We are called to name the exploitation, the oppression, the injustice, the dehumanizing of our siblings, to denounce their mistreatment and, in the name of God, to cast out the Sin and evil that cause it. In the name of a God whose heart pours out from upon the Cross for the sake of the horrors, great and small, that humanity visits upon its brothers and sisters.
Our God dwells with those forgotten by all others. Our God is love and liberation, healing and wholeness, the God of life which conquers all death. Our God goes to the executioner’s block with prophets who speak truth. Our God weeps with little girls exploited and hurt by those meant to care for them. And, at the last, our God gathers them up and seats the poor and forgotten, the persecuted and exploited, at the head of the banqueting table, when God wipes away every tear and where there is no more mourning, nor crying, neither is there any more pain.
And our God calls us to do the same, beloved.
Come to the table and share the feast with John and the little girl, with the forgotten and silenced and exploited of the world.
Come and feast with Christ.
Preached at Holy Trinity, Winnipeg.