One of, if not the most, menacing ugliness in these current but protracted conflicts between Christians and Muslims has been to me personally the gruesomeness and senselessness of the graphic beheadings we have witnessed in media and elsewhere. To date I still cannot fathom or make sense of the need to behead one’s “enemies”. Especially in the deliberately brutal manner they are carried out, quite a departure from those old antiseptically-done procedures that do not faze polite society as much, such as those done through the French guillotines or even those executed by the Japanese Kempetai with their lethal samurai swords which were used in the Philippines during the last world war. Sudden, Swift and Clean.
My short term memory comes replete with recent images of the beheadings that I have allowed myself to consume and store internally. From the most current, of the two US soldiers in Iraq, to the one done by the Abu Sayyaf rebels to an American named Sembrano. From the one of Nick Berg, to another American worker, and yes, even that of Daniel Pearl. Throw in the other stories I have read about of Moslem rebels in Mindanao who beheaded captured soldiers, and adding insult to injury, cut their genitals and stuff them in their mouths.
Enough memories for any sane man to try to escape from these gruesome images, to a place of serenity, of profound mystical truths, of a place to celebrate man’s more noble ordination. A place such as Holy Scripture.
But lo and behold, I open up the recommended daily reading for July 30th in Christ In The Gospel, published by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood ( April 1949 edition), and I am brought to the sixth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where he narrates the beheading of John the Baptist by King Herod.
Quite dispassionately, and almost nonchalantly, Mark describes the beheading thus:
And grieved as he was, the king, because of his oath and his guests, was unwilling to displease her. But sending an executioner, he commanded that his head be brought on a dish. Then he beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head on a dish, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.
Mark does not say more about where the head went next, except to end that the disciples took John’s body and buried it in a tomb.
A little historical background may aid our understanding of this almost unnecessary beheading.
Though the Jews were under Roman rule during that time (Remember hand-washer Pontius Pilate? He represented Rome in that part of the empire.), King Herod ruled over the small Jewish state. He himself was not even considered a Jew, since his mother was of Arabian descent and his father was Idumean.
To his credit, Herod actually liked John the Baptist and found him interesting and intelligent. It was his current wife, Herodias, erstwhile wife of Herod’s brother, Philip, who disliked John because he had commented that their union was not lawful.
It was the dance of the virginal Salome, daughter of Herodias, that would seal the fate of John. History would label this, the dance of the seven veils. Seven? A reference to the 72 promised virgins in Allah’s heaven?
Impressed by her dancing, Herod promises Salome anything she wants. Salome asks mom. Mom asks for the head of John. And so be it!
John loses his head at the hands of a non-Jew king.
What can anybody make of this?