Saturday, August 1, 2009

Trust God, and everything will turn out for the best.

Today’s First Reading (Leviticus 12:1, 8-17) continues the narrative in Leviticus of the establishment of civil and liturgical calendar. The LORD directs Moses to “count off seven Sabbaths of years”, that is, forty-nine years. Beginning on the tenth day of the seven month of that year – Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – the fiftieth year was to be set aside as a Year of Jubilee.

Just as the seventh day is a Sabbath, a day dedicated to the LORD, a day of worship and of rest, the Jubilee year is a year of rest. Farmers do not sow or reap grain in their fields, nor do vineyard owners tend their vines. The people eat only what grows naturally in the fields and in the vineyards.

In the year of Jubilee, all property that has been leased to tenants reverts to the original landowners. Beginning in the following year, land is to be bought and sold according to the number of years left for until the next Jubilee. If the years are many, the price is higher; if they are few, the price is lower, because what is actually being sold is the number of crops.

There are two underlying fundamental directives from the LORD: “Do not take advantage of one another”, and “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land”.  

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In today’s gospel, (Matthew 14:1-12) Herod the tetrarch (son of Herod the Great) hears reports about Jesus, and fears that John the Baptist has been raised from the dead.

Herod had arrested John and put him in prison, because John had admonished the tetrarch for marrying the wife of his brother Philip. Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid, because the people considered John to be a prophet.

During the celebrations for Herod’s birthday, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, entertained the guests with a dance. Herod was so please with her dancing that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Salome consulted with her mother, who said, “Tell him that you want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was distressed, but because he had made the oath before his dinner guests, he had to follow through with the promise. He ordered that the request be granted, and had John beheaded in the prison. The severed head was brought into the banquet hall on a platter, and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took the body to be buried. Then they went to tell Jesus what had happened.

According to Theodore of Heraclea (+ ca. 355), Herod was afraid of John the Baptist, and wanted him to be silenced. Even after John was beheaded, Herod obsessed about the possibility that he might return from the dead, and use even more severe threats than previously, and that his wickedness would be exposed. After his death, the Baptist had more power over Herod than he had in life.

Herod was mistaken though. The one who was coming to his attention now was not John returned from the dead, but Jesus. John’s preaching was to prepare the way for Jesus, and his death foreshadowed the passion and death of “the one who is to come after me, who was before me”. Since John was executed, Jesus was not about to escape a similar fate.

Herod’s bloody deed has appalled and fascinated people throughout the ages. It was the theme of a play by Oscar Wilde and an opera by Richard Strauss – but the title of both works is not Herod, nor John, but Salome. The Dance of the Seven Veils seems more significant in the public perception than the preaching of the Precursor. Such is the power of this truly vile deed that it seems to turn the whole world inside out.

Describing Herod’s birthday party for his niece, St. Peter Chrysologus (c.380-450) wrote: “The house changed into an arena, the table changed to a stand at the amphitheatre, the birthday guests turned into spectators, the feast turned into an uproar, the food into carnage, the wine into blood, the birthday into a funeral, sunrise into sunset, the banquet became a bloody murder, and the musical instruments began to play the tragedy of the ages.”

Is evil more powerful than good? It is certainly the intention of the Tempter to make it seem so. Whether that, or the contrary, is true has been a topic of philosophy from time immemorial until the present age. And it would remain so if we did not have the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to show us the truth. Jesus is just now coming to the attention of Herod, and Herod will play the role that has been given to him in a Passion Play that was not written by a dramatist, nor set to music by a composer, but willed from all eternity by the Creator, Sanctifier and Redeemer of humankind. It is not Herod or Salome, not the Pharisees or the Teachers of the Law, not John the Baptist, who has the starring role in this real-life drama. Don’t worry about the Baptist’s fate – or that of his kinsman from Nazareth. For that matter, don’t worry about your own. Trust God, and everything will turn out for the best – but not until the final curtain comes down.

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