01 August 2009

Where's your dancer?

[NB. This is my last daily homily preached to the sisters here in Fort Worth. I am headed back to the priory in Irving later today. . .]

St Alphonus Liguori: Lv 25.1; 8-17; Matt 14.1-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Herod hands us a warning —the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Surely, Herod has no idea that this grisly gift to a dancer would serve as a caution twenty centuries down the road. Fearing the anger of the people, he sets aside his own anger at John and enjoys his birthday party. He enjoys it a little too much; so much, in fact, that he foolishly vows to grant the party's exceptional dancer whatever she might wish. At the prompting of her mother—Herod's illegitimate wife—the young woman asks for John's head. For us, twenty-first century Christians, the girl's naivete produces a first-century warning: those in power will not tolerate prophets who speak the truth, especially if the truth spoken risks stinging an unruly conscience and rousing an unjustly ruled people. We are duly warned. But if Christians cannot or will not speak the truth to those who rule, who will? Can we afford to tolerate rulers who will not hear the truth spoken? Are we ready to surrender our heads to the court dancer?

John discovered the hard way that princes and kings do not like God's grubby spokesmen spouting off about truth, justice, and the holy way. Out of fear, Herod allows John to live despite John's harangues against his royal adultery. Watching the daily tracking polls, Herod no doubt sees John's popularity as a prophet of God, a man worthy of the job given to him. Focus groups indicate to the king that beheading John for speaking out would be a very dangerous move poll numbers; so, he refrains. Instead of the calling the axeman, Herod funds a political action committee and begins oppositional research. The negative ads were poised to air the day the dancing girl moved seductively onto the scene. She's the game-changer. In what will become one of history's most notorious political gaffes, Herod promises her the world. She wants and gets John's head. For the next several months nothing else is discussed in media. How will Plattergate play out at the polls? Has Herod hurt himself with the religious demographic? Was the whole affair a set-up by Herod's zealous opponents to embarrass him?

Among the witnesses that day were John's disciples. They collect his body and bury it. Then they tell Jesus that his herald is dead. Hearing this, Jesus goes alone to a deserted place. Does Jesus think that John was foolish to admonish Herod? Would Jesus have advised John to resist speaking the truth to his king? Maybe the better way here is the path of quiet persuasion through earnest dialogue and common ground engagement. After all, the truth is so harsh, so dramatically uncompromising, and impractical. Surely, our Lord would have coached John to be more tolerant, less judgmental, more willing to see both sides of the issue for the sake of staying at the political table. And then there's the whole beheading episode. There's a message for us from our rulers: tell me the truth, and I get your head. What compromise won't get me, the axe will cut away. Negotiate away the truth or die.

Are we ready to surrender our heads to the court dancer? A grim question! One we can hope and pray we never have to answer. Of course, the question will never be put to any of us in exactly those terms. We'll be asked a much more subtle question: are you willing to stop being so stubborn about all those moral and religious issues if we allow you to participate in the democratic process? If not, chop! You're out. Your head won't be on a platter, but your voice will be muffled under the weight of lawsuits and judicial injunctions. If we fall, we fall to the tax-man not the axe-man.

So, what do we do? Negotiate? Engage on “common ground”? Get what we can and thank our secular betters for the scrapes? We are as wise as serpents and gentle as doves, so we could. But too often gentle doves forget that they must sometimes be wise serpents. Fortunately, we are political animals only for a while. The life we have been chosen for and have received is the life of truth lived on the way to an eternal life. There is nothing to fear in speaking the truth, nothing and no one to tremble before when absolute moral virtue needs our voices to be heard. We have been warned. True. But we have also been promised. Warned by a king. Promised by The King. Promised to his Father. The beauty of this promise is that we have already been beheaded, died, buried, and made ready to rise again. Why would we fear the wrath of a king when we truly belong to The King? Besides, who told you that being a prophet was an easy road to fame and riches? Welcome to the Platter! Where's your dancer?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for your homily. It reminds us that things in John's day aren't so much different than today. Put in these terms, it makes us more aware of the Gospel message as it applies to us in the 21st century.