The picture on the front of the order of service today is a recent photo of my granddaughter, Rose. She is wearing a T-shirt that we gave her for her birthday – she was 13 last month. It carries the message, ‘Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.’ It’s from a great company that make feminist T-shirts and Rose loves it. Because of Covid there wasn’t a birthday party as such this year, just some pizza with immediate family – and like all families we have learned to do things differently. Birthdays have been much more modest affairs.
Rose, at 13, is probably about the same age that Herodias’ daughter was when she went to Herod’s birthday party. We think of her as Salome (but really only because of a source outside the Bible) and we are easily tempted to think of her as an exotic grown up dancer – you might have seen Rita Hayworth do the dance of the seven veils in the film version – but Herodias’s daughter is described in the Gospel with the same words as Jairus’ daughter, the little girl whom Jesus woke from sleep a couple of chapters back. She was just a girl – and she was at the most horrible birthday party there has probably ever been.
Herod Antipas was really and truly a piece of work, one of the worst in the ancient world. One of his lessoffensive acts was to walk off with his brother’s wife – and I won’t go into some of his more offensive ones lest I really put you off your lunch. But it was for the mix of adultery and incest that John the Baptist, the very straightforward and uncompromising prophet, gave Herod a hard time. This did not make Herodias – the new wife – a big fan. She hated John the Baptist. Herod seems to have been fascinated by him – and he was keeping him stewing in prison – perhaps to keep him out of the public eye and out of sight – a bit like Nelson Mandela shut away on Robben Island. Then Herod had a birthday and the Gospel tells us that he threw his own party – presumably because he was just so awful that no-one else wanted to throw it for him. No doubt Herod has lots of amazing gifts from all his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee, all keen to stay on the right side of a man who was capable of murdering his own sons. But it seems that, at this birthday party, Herod got to hand out presents too and when he asked his wife what was on her wish list she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist’. She wanted the sandwiches and fairy cakes swept off the platter to make space for violence and revenge. The story as told here, like stories often do, like the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph, blames the woman. It’s not him, it’s her. And she uses her young daughter, who was perhaps fearful and powerless (unlike my lovely Rose), to get what she wanted. It’s a horrible story. Herod gives her what she wants – and all just because he doesn’t want to lose face?! He exposes his step daughter to this bloody and appalling violence just so he doesn’t feel embarrassed about his drunken promise… you couldn’t make it up, except that we all know how evil works sometimes. So Herod fills the plate at his birthday party with blood and gore, with revenge and injustice… And he will always remember this day because it’s his birthday… Is that the kind of world we want to live in? Is this the world that God has made us for?
I find it fascinating that we cope with this story by somehow turning it into something easier to cope with, a story of seduction and exotic dancing rather than child abuse, a story of burlesque and the grotesque rather than violence and murder, a story to make a fool of John the Baptist rather than the noble prophet and martyr that he was – first in the Kingdom of God according to Jesus. Over the door of the great cathedral in Rouen, an artist imagines Herodias’ daughter dancing on her hands, like a voluptuous virago. From a play by Oscar Wilde, a novella by Gustave Flaubert, an opera by Strauss, a painting by Gustav Klimt – this poor girl is portrayed as immoral and dangerous. Oscar Wilde even has it that she was only out for revenge because John the Baptist spurned her advances.
But in the Gospel, she is simply a girl. And in the Gospel this is not an exotic story, but a sordid one. This is a banquet, a birthday banquet, but it’s not at all like the banquet that is so often said to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. The very next story in the Gospel of Mark, the one right up against this one, is the story of another feast – the feeding of the five thousand. This is a very different kind of story and we are almost certainly meant to see the contrast. Herod’s feast is one for the elite and the powerful, and the plates are filled – but one of them at least is filled with the head of the Baptist. Herod’s world is one where the poor are excluded, where prophets are executed, where truth is denied. But the feast of Jesus is one which fills plates empty with hunger with food – it is a feast wrought not from fancy royal food but from the bread and fish lunch that is all they have between them. Even the left-overs from this feast can fill many baskets – and all are welcome.
And there are those who suggest that this story – of a head on a plate – is a kind of deliberate parody of the most important feast of all for those of us who follow Jesus. We follow one who offers us his body on a plate… in a profoundly symbolic and real way. The party we keep at the heart of our worship is one where we share, as we did last week, a different kind of platter – in which we are offered the very bread of life. The Gospel stories are good at doing this – at showing us something and saying – ‘This is what the world sometimes looks like – look at it and see how warped and cruel and banal it is – and then look at what God offers to you instead – and come to the feast… ‘
Of course as a woman preaching on this text I can’t quite let go of the story of the girl who danced before Herod. By tradition she was called Salome – though that name doesn’t appear in this story in Mark’s Gospel. We get it from a historian of the time called Josephus. But there is another Salome in Mark’s Gospel. We find her at the end of the Gospel, when we meet the women who gathered at the foot of the cross and the women who went to the tomb, very early on the first day of the week. We learn that there were two Marys and a Salome in this faithful group. It’s very unlikely that this Salome was the girl who danced before Herod (though it would be fascinating if it was!). But, perhaps it is interesting anyway that these stories, by tradition at least, offer us two Salomes – two contrasting lives. The life of the innocent dancer is the one that has most fascinated artists and playwrights, but the faithful disciple who stood beside Christ on the cross and who accompanied his body to the tomb is surely the more important.
The Salome, if that was her name, in our story today, carried the head of a prophet into that terrible birthday banquet. The other Salome was there when the body of Christ was given for us on the cross and she was there when the news of his resurrection was given to the frightened and ordinary women. She, with the early church, would have later passed around the plate on which the bread of life, the body of Christ, was shared with the people.
We read in church today the story of the beheading of John the Baptist – but there are so many clues within the story that tell us that our story does not and never could end in this kind of place. It just keeps telling us that the world we are about to inherit is so different from the one in this story. Herod is a cruel and violent King – the kingship and the Kingdom of God are so different. Herod’s feast is elitist and violent and revolting – the feast of God is generous, welcoming, joyful and peaceful. In Herod’s world women are exploited and girls are abused – in Jesus’ world women are the first witnesses of resurrection. In the world of this story a bleeding head is served on a plate – in the feast of the church the body of Christ is turned into lifegiving bread. John’s body is laid in a tomb. Jesus is risen! The Gospel does not end with this story – read on reader, read on! Amen.