Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Wednesday in the 21st Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of the Beheading of John the Baptist
Fork in the Road

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Psalm 139: 7-12; Mark 6:17-29

Not only does today’s feast bring us to a fork in the road, it also helps us to examine the terrain of the two different paths that stretch out before us. On the one hand we have the path walked by Herod and his companions. On the other, we have the road traversed by John the Baptist and Paul, the same road that Paul encourages the Thessalonians to take in the first reading today when he asks them to live a life worthy of God.

A cursory glance at these two paths presents us with both differences and similarities. The differences are stark. On the surface, Herod and friends seem to have made the better choice. They enjoy power and wealth. Theirs is a luxurious life filled with much feasting and dancing and making merry. In contrast, we heard yesterday of the various hardships suffered by Paul as a result of his ministry. And today, we find John the Baptist languishing in prison and then beheaded for speaking out in the cause of right. The difference is clear: the first road is easy walk, but the second is hard and treacherous.

In addition, there seem to be similarities as well. For isn’t it obvious that those on both paths are people of great passion? The apparent zest for life demonstrated by Herod and his friends seems similar to the passion with which John the Baptist preached in the wilderness, and that animated the ministry of Paul.

However, our perspective on the two roads changes radically when we view them through the eyes of faith in Christ. For it is only through this faith that our celebration today has any meaning. It is only through faith that we can truly celebrate the beheaded even as we might pity the one who ordered the beheading. It is only through faith that we can see the truth of what Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount: Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt 7:13-14 (NAB)).

It is only through faith that we can see more clearly how this might be so: how the narrow road might lead to life and glory, even as the broad and easy one ends in death and destruction. The difference lies in the quality of passion. Herod and companions are passionate about nothing else beyond the narrow circle of the self and its many cravings. We see in the gospel, for example, how it is Herod’s passion for his own reputation – as much as it is Herodias’ concern with hers – that leads to the death of a just man. Theirs is a passion that forever remains rooted in selfishness. It ends in destruction.

In contrast, the passion of John the Baptist, and of Paul, is born of an experience of the prior compassion of God who, in Christ, calls all to share the glory of his kingdom. Having heeded this divine call they, in their turn, are moved to minister compassionately to those who are suffering, even to the extent of laying down their own lives. Isn’t this life-giving passion in compassion the very thing we are celebrating today? Isn’t this the very path that fascinates Herod, even as he fails to muster enough courage to take it? Isn’t this the same road that we are continually being encouraged to take, however tempting the alternative might be?

Where do we encounter this fork in the road today? Which path will we take?

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