By Debie Thomas
“All sorrows can be borne,” the Danish writer Isak Dinesan once said, “if you put them into a story.” I wonder if the writer of this week’s Gospel reading would agree. Do all sorrows have shape and sense? Do all of our experiences have meanings we can craft into bearable stories?
A faithless king forsakes his own wife to marry his brother’s. When a prophet condemns the dishonorable marriage, the king’s new wife seethes, and the king, ignoring his conscience, imprisons the truth-telling prophet. Soon afterwards, the king throws himself a birthday party, gets drunk, and invites his daughter to dance for his guests. Her performance “pleases” him so much that he promises her anything she desires, even up to half of his kingdom. The girl (spurred on by her mother) demands the imprisoned prophet’s death. Unwilling to lose face in front of his guests, the king reluctantly keeps his promise. Before the birthday party is over, the girl receives the prophet’s head on a platter.
This is a story, sure enough. Is it a bearable one?
Here’s another: One day in the temple, an angel appears to an elderly priest. The angel promises the priest a son, a special child who will become a powerful prophet and forerunner of the Messiah. When the stunned priest doubts the angel’s message — owing to his wife’s advanced age and barrenness — the angel takes away his ability to speak. Nine months later, however, the angel’s promise comes true, down to the last letter; the child is born, the overjoyed priest recovers his speech, and everyone who hears about the miracle birth is awestruck.
With the sky-high expectations of his community ringing in his ears, the prophet grows up and takes to the wilderness. Eager to fulfill his vocation, he chooses an austere and arduous lifestyle. He calls everyone he meets — even the king of the land — to repentance, faithfulness, and justice. He “prepares the way of the Lord,” baptizes the Messiah, and eagerly announces the arrival of God’s kingdom.
But then? But then he lands in prison for speaking truth to power; suffers doubt and despair about the Messiah he thought he recognized; receives no solace or rescue from that Messiah; and gets his head chopped off during a birthday party to appease a clueless girl, a cruel-hearted queen, and a cowardly king.
How’s that for a bearable story?
Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough, but I can’t find one shred of hope, redemption, or good news in the last chapter of John the Baptist’s life. His is a heartbreaking and wholly senseless death.
Of course, we Christians are trained to slap all kinds of redemptive meaning on tragedy: “Nothing happens in this world unless God wills it,” is one of the stories I grew up with. “He never gives anyone more than they can bear,” is another. “God has a plan,” is still another, and so is, “For everything, there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die.”
Those stories certainly have their merits, but some sorrows — like those that plague John’s death — just plain don’t fit into them. Most of the pious stories I’ve inherited as a Christian are not jagged enough; they’re tepid and polite. They move to closure, redemption, and triumph too quickly. Where is the Christian story that can handle horror? Where is the Christian story that will sit in the darkness and trust that God is there, too — instead of reaching too quickly and compulsively for brightness?
What bothers me about John the Baptist’s death — its gruesomeness notwithstanding — is its utter senselessness. John dies at the whim of a clueless teenager. He dies because a powerful woman has a callous heart and a lustful man has a shallow sense of honor. He dies for moral cowardice. He dies for a dance.
In other words, John is one of those people — we all know them — who does everything right, and then suffers anyway. Worse, he dies disillusioned and afraid, unsure of his Messiah. Worse still, he suffers a death that accomplishes nothing — no one is saved, no one is converted, and no one finds justice or mercy as a result of his execution. As Teresa of Avila purportedly told God, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”
I’ve spent the past week trying to pummel John’s death into something bearable, but I can’t. So maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is that it can’t be pummeled into anything but what it is: an injustice. A travesty. A desecration.
Maybe “the point” of this Gospel lectionary is to indict all forms of transactional Christianity that promise us comfort, prosperity, and blessing in exchange for our good behavior. Maybe the point is that God doesn’t exist to shield us from pain, sorrow, or premature death — however much it offends our sensibilities to admit this. Maybe the point is that we don’t need to slap purpose or meaning on all human experience in order to prove our piety. Maybe some things are just plain horrible. Period.
It’s tempting to read a story like John the Baptist’s and tell ourselves that it’s anachronistic — that it comes from a rougher, cruder, and more barbaric time. But of course the opposite is true. We still, right now, today, live in a world where faithlessness is an accepted norm. We still live in world where the innocent are detained, imprisoned, tormented, and killed. We still live in a world of sudden and random violence. We still live in a world where young girls are made to be sexual objects for powerful men. And we still live in a world where speaking truth to power is a rare and revolutionary act.
Closer to home, I still live in a world where I distance myself from people who tell me truths I’d rather not hear. I still live in a world where I worry more about sounding stupid or losing face than I do about practicing discretion, admitting my mistakes, and humbling myself in front of people I’m desperate to impress. I still live in a world where people within my reach live lonely lives and die meaningless deaths — and I barely notice.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus heard of John’s death, “he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone.” Can we take this in? He didn’t preach. He didn’t turn the horror into a morality tale. He didn’t minimize his loss with any version of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. He withdrew into silence. He sought solitude. He lingered over his pain and created space for it to spend itself. And then? Then he fed people. The Feeding of the Five Thousand directly follows John’s death. Jesus came back from mourning, asked a crowd to sit down, gathered whatever bread and fish he could find, and fed people.
How much more credible and relevant we, his followers, would be, if we’d follow Jesus’s example as we confront the world’s ongoing horrors. Some things are too terrible for words. Some hurts can’t be salvaged with a neat story. So honor the silence. Create space for grief. Mourn freely. And when you’re ready, feed the people around you whatever you’ve got. Somehow it will be enough, even if you can’t explain how or why. This is how we make the sorrows bearable.
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