Here at the retreat house yesterday, I preached on Matthew’s account of the beheading of John the Baptist.
I have always found this to be a very disquieting passage, in part because of a detail we get in Mark’s account that Matthew does not. Mark tells us that Herod knew that John was a righteous and holy man, and that, although he was often perplexed by John’s words, he liked to listen to him. (I picture Herod, like Nicodemus sneaking off in the dead of night to speak to Jesus, going down to John’s cell when the guards were not around listening to John.)
Herod knows John to be holy and righteous, likes hearing him speak, and knows killing John would upset his followers. Yet, he kills him anyway. What’s up with that?
As I began my reflection by observing, one of the key meditations of Week Two of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is the Meditation on the Two Standards. In that exercise, Ignatius invites us to a deeper sense of both the draw of Jesus and the pull of the enemy spirit. (Ignatius took for granted that both exist, and whether or not one shares Ignatius’ belief in Satan, it is apparent that there is a force that pulls us away from good. Call it, as Ignatius sometimes does, the enemy spirit.) Ignatius wants us to reflect in the Two Standards meditation both how the enemy spirit deceives us so can guard against it, and know what it is like to live life in Christ.
Ignatius tells us that the enemy spirit tempts with longing for riches, honor, and pride, and through these entices us to all other evils. And it is important to him that we get a clear picture of how enemy spirit works.
In my view, this is one of the very helpful Gospels in seeing how the temptation of the enemy spirit operates.
Picture the scene of Herod’s birthday party. When I pray with this passage, I see a room almost garish in its lavish decorations. Herod, in all of his finery, is seated on a dais in the front, surrounded by sycophants. The room is full of people – the military, all the rich folks of the town. (Likely none of them is really Herod’s friend. They are attracted by his money and power.) Tables groaning with food and drink, loud music. Who knows what going on in dark corners or behind the drapes.
Into this comes the daughter of Herodias to do her dance. Matthew says that Herod was delighted – I’m guessing filled with lust was closer to the truth. And so he makes his rash promise – ask anything, doubtless expecting the girl to ask for a new gown, a gold tiara or perhaps some more slaves. Instead, she asks for the head of John the Baptist.
Herod was distressed. What should he do? I can imagine what Ignatius calls the angel of light whispering in Herod’s ear: “You know John is a good and holy man. You like listening to him. Stop this nonsense. You can’t kill him.”
But then there is the voice of the enemy spirit, appealing to Herod’s honor and his pride. “You promised, you can’t go back on your word. What will all these people think? You’ll be a laughing stock. You will lose your standing with the military and the business folks, and who know where that will lead. And what about Herodias and her daughter? They will never trust your word again.”
And the voice of the enemy spirit drowns out that of the angel of light, and Herod does that which he knows is wrong.
This is a good passage to pray with. Herod is a cautionary tale of the power of the temptation of the enemy spirit – its potential to appeal (if not to a desire for riches – which seems to be easy for many to give up) to our desire for honor and our pride to cause us (in Paul’s words) to do the things we do not want to do.
In my reflection, I also spoke about the second side of the Two Standards meditation, and the example of John as a model of a life lived in and for Christ, despite the cost. And I think it equally important to us to find inspiration from people like John, because every day we are faced with the question: Will we stand fast to standard of Christ in the face of the temptations of the enemy spirit and the world?