Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D



The Decollation of St. John the Baptist






We celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist on June 24, and on July 2, the Feast of the Visitation, we ponder his being filled with the Holy Ghost while still in his mother's womb. During Advent, we hear much about St. John as we prepare for the birth of our Savior -- and for the return of Christ at the end of time.

Today though, on August 29, we recall the murder of our Saint -- the "Decollation (beheading) of St. John the Baptist." You'll find the story told best in Matthew 14:1-13 and Mark 6:14-29.

First, some background information: Herod the Great -- the Herod who arranged for the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2) -- had a number of children with many different wives, and when he died, his kingdom was divided up among three of them.

One of those children was a son named Aristobulus IV. Aristobulus, with one of his many wives, fathered Herodias, a daughter.

And this is where things grow tricky: Herodias married her half-uncle, Herod Phillip ("Herod II"). With him, she gave birth to the woman we know as Salome. Herodias then divorced Herod II -- and married his half-brother, Herod Antipas, who divorced his first wife to take up with Herodias.




That
is the situation of which St. John the Baptist publicly disapproved. And Herodias disapproved of St. John's disapproval. And Herod Antipas felt the need to keep his wife happy. Mark 6:17-18: "Herod himself had sent and apprehended John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias the wife of Philip his brother, because he had married her. For John said to Herod: It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife."

While John was imprisoned, Herod Antipas had a birthday; to celebrate, he threw a great feast, inviting "the princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee" (Mark 6:21). During this banquet, Herodias's daughter -- whom we know as Salome since her name was given as such in Josephus's 1st century "Antiquities of the Jews" -- danced for Herod Antipas, her step-father and half-uncle. Herod was pleased with her wanton display, as Mark 6:22-23 tells us:

[T]he daughter of the same Herodias had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod, and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he swore to her: Whatsoever thou shalt ask I will give thee, though it be the half of my kingdom.

Salome goes to her mother to see what she should ask for. Instead of telling her to ask for half of the kingdom, or gold, or jewels, the vengeful Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist, the man who'd publicly shamed her. Salome does so, asking for his head on a platter. She got her wish, and gave the gruesome reward to her mother. When the disciples heard what happened, they came and took John's headless body, burying it in a tomb.

The epilogue of this tale is given by the Flemish priest Cornelius Lapide (d. 1637):

Wherefore the just vengeance of God burned against all who were concerned in this crime. Herod was defeated by Aretas. Afterwards he was banished with Herodias to Lyons, and deprived of his tetrarchy and everything by Caligula, at the instigation of Herod Agrippa, the brother of Herodias, as Josephus relates (xvii. 10).

Moreover, the head of the dancing daughter was cut off by means of ice. Hear what Nicephorus says, "As she was journeying once in the winter-time, and a frozen river had to be crossed on foot, the ice broke beneath her, not without the providence of God. Straightway she sank down up to her neck. This made her dance and wriggle about with all the lower parts of her body, not on land, but in the water. Her wicked head was glazed with ice, and at length severed from her body by the sharp edges, not of iron, but of the frozen water. Thus in the very ice she displayed the dance of death, and furnished a spectacle to all who beheld it, which brought to mind what she had done.


The dramatic story of John's murder is given to being depicted artistically, and has been throughout the millennia, especially in paintings.



Detail from Gustave Moreau's depiction of Herod's feast. Click to enlarge and see the entire painting.



Literature, too, has joined the cause, most famously with Oscar Wilde's play Salome. This play identifies Salome's dance as the "Dance of the Seven Veils," and given the nature of the dance, the play was a scandal when it was written. Richard Strauss wrote an opera based on Wilde's work, and it, too, had a hard time finding an audience when it was first revealed to the public. The opera's "Dance of the Seven Veils":



Salome has been depicted by everyone from Theda Bara to Alla Nazimova in silent movies, and from Rita Hayworth to Brigid Bazlen in "the talkies." And, speaking of silent movies and "talkies" in the same sentence, who can forget Gloria Swanson in the fabulous 1950 movie "Sunset Boulevard," with her pathetic, long past her prime Norma Desmond character -- an old actress obssessed with making a comeback by playing the young Salome in a play she's writing herself?

Yes, Salome has left her titillating mark. Sex -- one of God's greatest and most pleasurable gifts -- has always been an easy sell when presented out of context; much more difficult is doing what St. John the Baptist did and standing up for keeping sex rightly ordered to Sacrament, the only means to a sane social order. The example of his fortitude that we honor on this feast is more important today than ever. Don't be afraid to say what needs to be said -- with prudence, with all mercy and charity for sinners, and with no tolerance at all for error. Work to acquire the cardinal virtues, and "speak truth to power," as the radicals used to say. Like the Forerunner, be "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness"! And if you think you can't do that, at least never, ever lie!



Customs

The Litany of St. John the Baptist that I have off the Feast of St. John the Baptist page would be a good prayer for the day, as would today's Collect:

May the august festival of St. John the Baptist, Thy precursor and martyr, we beseech Thee, O Lord, effect for us the furtherance of our salvation. Who lives and reigns with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.

In L'Aquila, in Italy's Abruzzo region, one can obtain a plenary indulgence through the Perdonanza Celestiniana (the Celestine Forgiveness). In 1294, Pietro Angelerio was crowned Pope Celestine V on this date, and granted a plenary indulgence thereafter to all who, on the Feast of the Decollation of St. John, pass through the holy door of the Santa Maria di Collemaggio basilica. On the day before, a procession is held in which the papal bull granting the indulgence is carried through the streets and brought to the basilica. There, it is read, and a ritual is made of knocking three times with an olive branch on the basilica's holy door, which is then opened for pilgrims to pass through. The conditions of receiving the indulgence are 1) visiting the basilica from Vespers on August 28 to sunset on August 29, and reciting the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a prayer for the Holy Father’s Intentions; and 2) receiving the the Sacraments of Confession and the Holy Communion (within 8 days before or after the day the indulgence is sought). The indulgence may be sought for oneself or for a loved one who has died. The text of the papal bull:

Celestine, Bishop, servant of the servants of God, wishes health and gives the apostolic blessing to all the faithful who will consider this letter. Among the festivities that remember the saints more solemnly we should honor the memory of the most important one, St. John the Baptist, as he, although born from the womb of a sterile old-aged woman, was fruitful of virtue and sacred gifts. He was the voice of the Apostles and the silent prophets. Having concluded the prophets’ cycle and announced the presence of Christ on earth with the Logos (Word) and miraculous indications, he announced Christ as the light in the world’s fog and in the darkness of ignorance that wrapped the earth. For this reason, the Baptist followed the glorious martyrdom, mysteriously imposed by the will of a shameless woman by the task to her entrusted. We, that on the day of the beheading of Saint John, in the Benedictine church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio in Aquila, received the tiara on our head, want to give even more veneration to this saint, that should be honoured, with hymns, religious chants, and with devout prayers of the faithful. Therefore in this church, the feast of the beheading of St. John is enhanced with scheduled ceremonies celebrated by the devoted People of God, and more devoutly and fervently it shall be, as much in such church the request of those who search for God will find treasures of the church, as resplendent spiritual gifts, that will give benefit in the future life, fortified by the mercy of the Almighty God, and of the authority of his apostles, Saints Peter and Paul. On each annual recurrence, we absolve from guilt and punishment, as a result of all their sins committed since their Baptism, all those that sincerely repentant and confessed will have entered the Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio from the vespers on the eve of St. John’s festivity until the vespers immediately after the festivity.

Datum Aquile
III kalendas octobris, pontificatus nostri anno primo


Whether or not you can make it to L'Aquila, one of the best things you can do this day after honoring St. John the Baptist and asking him to intercede for you is to meditate on and talk to your children about the importance of telling the truth. Model honesty to them, and tell them stories about where dishonesty leads. Some stories for you to download, including "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," "The Monkey and the Dolphin," "The Crow and the Raven" (all by Aesop) and "The Emperor's New Clothes": Stories About the Importance of Honesty (pdf format, 6 pages).




Readings

Homily II.23
by the Venerable Bede

We might consider and commit more actively to memory how almighty God allows his chosen ones and beloved servants, those he has predestined to life and his eternal kingdom, to be so stricken in this life by the persecution of the wicked, to be wasted by so many kinds and such fierce punishments and deaths. This is so that when we have viewed the sufferings of perfect men, we may grieve less over the adversities that perhaps have happened to us, and learn instead to esteem it complete joy when we fall into various kinds of temptations (James 1:2), keeping in mind that “The Lord chastises those he loves, and scourges every child whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6).

Now although the principle stands that “We all offend in many ways” (James 3:2), which of us dare to say that blessed John sinned in act or word or dress or food, when the gospel history praises the harshness of his clothing and the frugality of his meals; when everything he said either rendered testimony to the truth or refuted those who spoke against him; when even those who did not like him held in veneration his works of justice? What place could there have been in his inmost heart for sin, when the coming of the Holy Spirit consecrated him even before his birth, when not even in comparison with the ordinary way of human life could he be turned aside from the path of virtue, who from his boyhood on led an entirely solitary life?

And yet a man of this sort, one who was so preeminent, reached the end of his earthly life by shedding his blood after a long period of affliction in chains. He who brought the good news of the freedom of heaven was thrust into chains by wicked people; he who “came to bear testimony to the light” (John 1:8), and who merited to be called “a burning and shining lamp” by the very light which is Christ (John 5:35), was shut up in the darkness of prison; he who was greater than all those born of women (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28) was punished by being beheaded at the request of the basest of women; and he to whom it was granted to baptize the world’s Redeemer, to hear the Father’s voice above him, and to see the grace of the Holy Spirit descending upon him, was baptized in his own blood.



From the "Book upon Virgins"

by St. Ambrose

We must not hurry by the record of the Blessed Baptist John. We must ask what he was, and by whom, and why, and how, and when he was slain. He was a righteous man murdered by adulterers. The guilty passed upon their judge the sentence of death. Moreover, the death of the Prophet was the fee of a dancing-girl. And lastly, there was a feature about it from which even savages shrink; the order for completing the atrocity was given amid the merriment of a dinner-party. From banquet to prison, from prison to banquet, that was the course run by the servants of the murderer. How many horrors does this simple crime embrace within its details?

Who is there, that, on seeing the messenger hasten from the dinner-table to the prison, would not have forthwith concluded that he carried an order for the Prophet's release. If any one had heard that it was Herod's birthday, and that he was giving a great feast, and that he had offered a damsel the choice of whatever she listed, and that thereupon a messenger had been sent to John's dungeon. If any one, I say, had heard this, what would he have supposed? He would have concluded that the damsel had asked and obtained John's freedom. What have executions in common with dinners, or death with gaiety? While the banquet was going on, the Prophet was hurried to death, by an order from the reveller whom he had not troubled even by a prayer for release. He was slain with the sword, and his head was served up in a plate. This was the new dish demanded by a cruelty which the Feast had been powerless to glut.

Look, savage King, look at a decoration which suiteth well with thy banquet. Put out thine hand, so as to lose no part of the luxury of cruelty, and let the streams of the sacred blood run between thy fingers. Thine hunger the dinner hath been unable to satisfy, thy cups have not been able to quench thine inhuman thirst. Suck, suck the blood which the still palpitating veins are discharging from the place where the neck has been severed. Look at the eyes. Even in death they remain the eyes of a witness of thine uncleanness, but they are closing themselves upon the spectacle of thy pleasures. Those eyes indeed are shutting but it seems not so much from the laws of natural death, as from horror at the scene of thine enjoyment. The golden mouth, whose bloodless lips are silent now, can repeat no more the denunciation which thou couldest not bear to hear, and still thou art afraid of it.




Footnotes:

1 "Decollation" means "beheading." However, "collation" means "a light meal." It's a word one sees often in traditional Catholic literature, especially with regard to monastic life (ex., a convent's schedule might include "6pm Vespers; 6:30 Collation"). So when I see the word "decollation" in reference to St. John the Baptist, I can't help but picture a man wearing animal skins, vomiting up locusts and honey. Sorry. But it's true, and kinda funny. So there it is.



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