Tuesday, May 03, 2005

John the Baptist Drops By

John the Baptist Drops By

John the Baptist Drops By (2005)

From Lives of the Saints:

When John began final preparations for his mission, he was probably in his thirty-second year. He withdrew into the harsh, rocky desert beyond the Jordan to fast and pray, as was the ancient custom of holy men. We are told that he kept himself alive by eating locusts and wild honey and wore a rough garment of camel's hair, tied with a leathern girdle. When he came back to start preaching in the villages of Judaea, he was haggard and uncouth, but his eyes burned with zeal and his voice carried deep conviction. The Jews were accustomed to preachers and prophets who gave no thought to outward appearances, and they accepted John at once; the times were troubled, and the people yearned for reassurance and comfort. So transcendent was the power emanating from the holy man that after hearing him many believed he was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. John quickly put them right, saying he had come only to prepare the way, and that he was not worthy to unloose the Master's sandals. Although his preaching and baptizing continued for some months during the Saviour's own ministry, John always made plain that he was merely the Forerunner. His humility remained incorruptible even when his fame spread to Jerusalem and members of the higher priesthood came to make inquiries and to hear him. "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand," -- this was John's oft-repeated theme. For the evils of the times his remedy was individual purification. "Every tree," he said, "that is not bringing forth good fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire." The reformation of each person's life must be complete -- the wheat must be separated from the chaff and the chaff burned "with unquenchable fire."

[...]

John's life now rushes on towards its tragic end. In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman emperor, Tiberias Caesar, Herod Antipas was the provincial governor or tetrarch of a subdivision of Palestine which included Galilee and Peraea, a district lying east of the Jordan. In the course of John's preaching, he had denounced in unmeasured terms the immorality of Herod's petty court, and had even boldly upbraided Herod to his face for his defiance of old Jewish law, especially in having taken to himself the wife of his half-brother, Philip. This woman, the dissolute Herodias, was also Herod's niece. Herod feared and reverenced John, knowing him to be a holy man, and he followed his advice in many matters; but he could not endure having his private life castigated. Herodias stimulated his anger by lies and artifices. His resentment at length got the better of his judgment and he had John cast into the fortress of Machaerus, near the Dead Sea. When Jesus heard of this, and knew that some of His disciples had gone to see John, He spoke thus of him: "What went you to see? A prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. For I say to you, amongst those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" (Matthew xi, 10-12).

Herodias never ceased plotting against the life of John, who was not silenced even by prison walls. His followers now became even more turbulent. To Herodias soon came the opportunity she had long sought to put an end to the trouble-maker. On Herod's birthday he gave a feast for the chief men of that region. In Matthew xiv, Mark vi, and Luke ix, we are given parallel accounts of this infamous occasion which was to culminate in John's death. At the feast, Salome, fourteen-year-old daughter of Herodias by her lawful husband, pleased Herod and his guests so much by her dancing that Herod promised on oath to give her anything that it was in his power to give, even though it should amount to half his kingdom. Salome, acting under the direction and influence of her wicked mother, answered that she wished to have the head of John the Baptist, presented to her on a platter. Such a horrible request shocked and unnerved Herod. Still, he had given his word and was afraid to break it. So, with no legal formalities whatever, he dispatched a soldier to the prison with orders to behead the prisoner and return with it immediately. This was quickly done, and the cruel girl did not hesitate to accept the dish with its dreadful offering and give it to her mother. John's brief ministry was thus terminated by a monstrous crime. There was great sadness among the people who had hearkened to him, and when the disciples of Jesus heard the news of John's death, they came and took the body and laid it reverently in a tomb. Jesus, with some of his disciples, retired "to a desert place apart," to mourn.

And from MSNBC News:

Archaeologists think they’ve found a cave where John the Baptist baptized many of his followers -- basing their theory on thousands of shards from ritual jugs, a stone used for foot cleansing and wall carvings that tell the story of the biblical preacher.

Only a few artifacts linked to New Testament figures have ever been found in the Holy Land, and the cave is potentially a major discovery in biblical archaeology.

“John the Baptist, who was just a figure from the Gospels, now comes to life,” British archaeologist Shimon Gibson said during an exclusive tour of the cave given to The Associated Press.

But some scholars said Gibson’s finds aren’t enough to support his theory, and one colleague said that short of an inscription with John’s name in the cave, there could never be conclusive proof of his presence there.

The bright colors and sharp lines of this fairly new image sit in opposition to its dark and violent subject -- the delivery of John's head by Salome.

Although I do not consider myself religious, at least in the socially conventional sense of the term, I have sometimes depicted Biblical scenes in my work. I tend to think of these events less as scripture and more as highly charged, dramatic narratives that resonate in mass culture and are known to most viewers.

I remember the story of John the Baptist made quite an impression on me as a child. Something about the erotic nature of the dance coupled with the loss of one's head stayed with me. I'm not sure why, but I can certainly guess what Freudians would say...

2 comments:

Tim said...

I think paintings of John the Baptist being decapitated are almost a genre of their own. I was in a church in Spain once back in 89 when I saw the most remarkable picture of John the Baptist getting his head chopped off. He was tied by his hands to a post, standing, and his head was chopped off towards the viewer. The head was the largest object in the painting and was bouncing into the foreground with a chilling expression.

I've always thought John's death was very anticlimactic for someone who played the role of the "Elijah." An awkward moment in front of dinner guests results in Herod being forced to quickly behead him.

cruelanimal said...

"The head was the largest object in the painting and was bouncing into the foreground with a chilling expression."

Cool. Sounds like the makings of a Mel Gibson storyboard.

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