Saint Agatha, optional memorial
1st Reading: Sirach 47:2-11
David’s virtues: defender of Israel, psalmist, penitent sinner, blessed by God
As the fat is set apart from the offering of well-being,
so David was set apart from the Israelites.
He played with lions as though they were young goats,
and with bears as though they were lambs of the flock.
In his youth did he not kill a giant,
and take away the people’s disgrace,
when he whirled the stone in the sling
and struck down the boasting Goliath?
For he called on the Lord, the Most High,
and he gave strength to his right arm
to strike down a mighty warrior,
and to exalt the power of his people.
So they glorified him for the tens of thousands he conquered,
and praised him for the blessings bestowed by the Lord,
when the glorious diadem was given to him.
For he wiped out his enemies on every side,
and annihilated his adversaries the Philistines;
he crushed their power to our own day.
In all that he did he gave thanks
to the Holy One, the Most High, proclaiming his glory;
he sang praise with all his heart,
and he loved his Maker.
He placed singers before the altar,
to make sweet melody with their voices.
He gave beauty to the festivals,
and arranged their times throughout the year,
while they praised God’s holy name,
and the sanctuary resounded from early morning.
The Lord took away his sins,
and exalted his power forever;
he gave him a covenant of kingship
and a glorious throne in Israel.
Gospel: Mark 6:14-29
Herod is curious about John the Baptist — but has him beheaded just the same
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had told Herod: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieed; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
When God seems to let us down
Today we commemorate two great precursors of Jesus, John the Baptist in the gospel, and king David in Sirach’s text. These precursors are not silent, stiff figures, whose immutable identity is “chiseled on stone” (Job 19:24). Sirach’s praise of David indicates the living, suportive presence of God through his long career, from when he battled the Philistine giant as a youth, and later as king extended the boundary of Israel and overcame all opposition, and even when he became guilty of adultery and murder yet repented humbly and publicly. It recalls moments when David sang before the altar, with the sweet melody of his psalms. God was present throughout, as helper, giver of pardon, inspirer of ideals, as one who overcame all opposition to the fulfillment of the divine will in David’s life.
That benign view of providence seems to collapse in the gospel account of John the Baptist, ending hideously when the daughter presented her mother with the head of the Baptist on a platter. No wonder the memory of John haunted the sleep of King Herod, so that he hoped that somehow Jesus was John raised from the dead. But, in a way Herod could not comprehend, John was not extinguished, but alive in Jesus who “is the same yesterday, today and forever.”
Jesus is present among the marginalised and suffering people of the worldâ€”just as he was the reason for the Baptist’s imprisonment and persecution. We must seek him in these areas that are enclosed, narrow, dark, lonely and seemingly hopelessâ€”in prisons, and among the lowest migrant, unwelcome people in our midst. Even in our own personal lives, we may have entertained God’s angels unawares.
A deadly banquet
This gospel scene is one that has inspired artists and playwrights throughout the centuries. The sumptuous banquet in Herod’s palace for his birthday turns out to be a banquet of death. Mark follows this scene with the feeding by Jesus of the multitude in the wilderness. It is as if the evangelist wants to set Herod banquet of death over against Jesus’ banquet of life. John the Baptist is described in the gospel as a “good and holy man.” He courageously spoke God’s truth, God’s way, and that is why he was beheaded. Jesus was crucified for the same reason, because he proclaimed God’s ways, God’s purposess, by what he said and did. We are all called to proclaim the ways of God as revealed to us by Jesus. That will call for courage at times, the courage displayed by John the Baptist and Jesus. One of the traditional seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is courage. Today, more than in the past, we need a courageous faith; we need the courage of the Holy Spirit to witness to the values of the gospel, as John and Jesus did. A courageous faith is not an arrogant faith, but it is a firm faith, an enduring faith, a faith that holds firm when the storms come because its roots are deep. We pray today for the gift of such a faith, the kind of faithfulness that shaped John’s life and death.
Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr.
Agatha was born at Catania, Sicily. According to legend, she opted for a life of virginity and rejected the amorous advances of the prefect Quintianus, who then persecuted her for her Christian faith. She was martyred c. 251 a.D.