Over the past two weeks, the Old Testament readings have been journeying with David. We’ve seen him in his youthful days, through the adventures of his coming into power, his immense respect for the authority of the monarchy, his frustrations and struggles with Saul, all the way through to his assent to the thrown as king of Israel. And the story didn’t stop there. David’s gratitude for seeing God’s plan, past, present, and future honored and gave praise to God. His selfishness as he coveted Bathsheba and orchestrated the murder of her husband revealed the fragile side of the human person. And his sorrow and anguish revealed his remorse and regret as he came to a greater awareness of his darker side.
Today we conclude this journey with David. Notice the style and authorship. It is written more in a plural voice. Is this not how the people of Israel remembered their great leader? His greatness is not proclaimed by the king himself as much as it is by those who remember him. It is an epic story. It is a story which Hollywood has tried to convey and reproduce hundreds of times. It is the story of a young boy rising through whatever life situations to become the hero. It is today what millions of young boys dream of. And before Hollywood existed which added numerous stories of the hero-journey to our viewing pleasure, this story would have been a primary story of inspiration to boys and young men for thousands of years. For it is the story of moving from a young shepherd boy to gloriously remembered king.
Today’s gospel plays out another kingly story. And while it too has gone down in history, it certainly has never been a story of honor. When Herod is celebrating his birthday and witnesses the young girl dancing he wants to give her something. He even brings her into the conversation. "Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you. Even up to half of my kingdom" On one level it appears that Herod is quite generous; except, do you know who the dancing girl is? She is not a peasant girl or even an outsider. She is the daughter of Herodias who is the wife of Herod. Mark doesn’t tell us her name he simply refers to her as "his own daughter". Recall, Herodias was originally married to Herod’s brother Philip. Many Jews were upset about this re-marriage. In the Jewish mindset, it simply is not right for anyone to marry their brother’s wife while the first husband is still alive. John the Baptist was outspoken about it to the point that Herod had him thrown in prison. Mark tells us that Herodias, the wife, "harbored a grudge against him" on account of John the Baptist speaking against this unlawful union. Mark also tells us that Herod the King, "feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man". So the wife, Herodias, uses the opportunity of her daughter’s dance to play into her husband’s generosity to finish the job which her husband wouldn’t do. Unlike the first reading this is NOT a story of glory. This is a story which leaves the reader feeling shocked, being jolted by the tragic loss of such sacred life. Even Herod, who was outside the Jewish tradition, saw John the Baptist as a man of God. When we proclaim this gospel this morning there certainly won’t be any cheering. This is moral evil.
Mark cleverly sandwiches this account between the sending out of the twelve and their return. This is missionary work. They are asked to proclaim repentance, expel demons, anoint the sick, and cure people. When they return they report back to Jesus, telling of their experiences. Mark places the gospel of today between their departure and return as if to say something important about missionary life and evangelization. And one of the truths is that if we authentically attempt to live the gospel, it will not win us votes in a popularity contest. There are strong repercussions for speaking with the prophetic voice. And we see this with John the Baptist, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bold prophets tend to be hated by people who refuse to listen to the truth. Lent and Holy Week will take us down this same path as we journey with our honorable king. Let us pray that our ears will be open to hear it as we are called more deeply into the mission of evangelization.
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is on the staff at Christ the King Passionist Retreat Center, Citrus Heights, California.