|Devotion to Our Lady||
The son of Zachary, a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, a kinswoman of Our Lady who visited her, he was probably born at Ain-Karim southwest of Jerusalem after the Angel Gabriel had told Zachary that his wife would bear a child even though she was an old woman. He lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until about A.D. 27.
When he was thirty, just as Our Lord, he began to preach on the banks of the Jordan against the evils of the times and called men to penance and Baptism “for the kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.” He attracted large crowds, and when Christ came to him John recognized Him as the Messiah and baptized Him, saying, “It is I who need Baptism from You” (Matthew 3:14). When Christ left to preach in Galilee, John continued preaching in the Jordan Valley.
Fearful of his great power with the people, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, had him arrested and imprisoned at Machaerus Fortress on the Dead Sea when John denounced his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias, wife of his half-brother Philip.
John was beheaded at the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias, who asked for his head at the instigation of her mother. John inspired many of his followers to follow Christ when he designated Him “the Lamb of God,” among them Andrew and John, who came to know Christ through John’s preaching. John is presented in the New Testament as the last of the Old Testament prophets and the precursor of the Messias.
1. The Coming of John the Baptist
It was the fullness of time. That strange, unruly people had waited long. Jericho, as they passed it on their way to and from the Holy City, had stood there through the centuries, to remind them forever of that day when Josue had brought their fathers into the land that flowed with milk and honey.
They had entered that land, they had spread over it, they had made it their own, and they had all but perished in it. They had established in it the one God Who had made them His chosen people, they had built His temple on Moria to be the wonder of the world; and yet across the valley to the south was the Hill of Scandal, where he who had built the first temple to their one, true God, had built other temples to other gods in the days of his undoing. They had served their God and had forsaken Him; by Him they had been punished, even to destruction, and yet ever and again the bones of their dead past had been revived.
It was a weird tale that they had to recall; a tale of a stiff-necked people, faithless more often than faithful, nevertheless with a something in it that kept it alive, and united, and conscious of itself as the race that must one day save the world.
The city of David had perished, but another had been built on its site. Solomon’s temple had gone, but in its place another had arisen. The very sacred books had been lost but had been found again, and now they were studied as they had never been before.
As for their ancient oppressors, Egypt lay buried in its own waste of sand; the Philistines had sunk in the sea; Babylon, Assyria, were names that attached themselves to monster ruins; Antiochus and his Greeks had vanished again as quickly as they had come. There remained the Romans, the contemptuous, hated Romans; but their day would come, they had sealed their own doom, for had they not violated the Holy of Holies?
And there were their myrmidons, the creatures neither Jew nor Roman, Herod and Philip and Lysanias, whom everybody loathed and felt the shame of obeying; surely they had sunk as low as they well could, surely the dawn was at hand. It had always been so; always the Lord had at last remembered mercy; He would do it again.
And yet in what could they hope? They looked at their Temple, gleaming gold beneath the autumn sun, and it filled them with pride; still could they not forget that it had been built, not by Solomon, not by Esdras, but by the bloodstained Herod. Because David had been a man of blood he had been forbidden to build the first temple; how much worse had been Herod!
THE PROPHET ISAIAS
They went into its courts and worshiped; yet had they to close their eyes to much before in His own house they could commune with their God.
They sat at the feet of their teachers and they came away confused. Their scribes bound them down to the letter of the Law; their doctors were divided into schools and confounded one another; their very priests were the puppets of the Roman hand, politic, untrue, grasping, confined now to a single family, with the old man Annas as the guiding star of all.
The Law had divorced itself from life; religion had become a binding bondage; men looked with hungry eyes from their city walls towards the eastern hills as the sun rose beautiful above them, and longed and longed again that at length there might come up to them from across the Jordan that other Savior Who was to bring them light.
That He would come they knew; they could never doubt it. Their whole history foretold it; again and again their prophets had said it; above them all the greatest of their prophets, Isaias. They knew his words by heart; they were steeped in his majestic poetry, his language of mystery they had pondered in their schools.
One passage more than all others they could never forget, so glorious was it, so absolute, so reassuring. Their king that was to be would one day come, so it said, and His herald would announce Him.
“ ‘Be comforted, be comforted, My people!’ saith your God. ‘Speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her, for her evil is come to an end. Her iniquity is forgiven. She hath received of the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.’”
Then had the prophet taken his imagery from the grand progresses of the monarchs of old. A runner would go forward to proclaim the king’s coming; mountains would be leveled, valleys would be filled, to make easy his approach.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wilderness the paths of your God! Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low! And the crooked shall become straight and the rough ways plain and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh together shall see that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.’”
Along that leveled road would come the herald, telling the imminent presence of the king: “The voice of one saying: ‘Cry!’ And I said: ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All flesh is grass and all the glory thereof as the flower of the field the grass is withered and the flower is fallen but the word of the Lord endureth for ever! Get thee up upon a high mountain, thou that bringest good tidings to Sion! Lift up thy voice with strength, thou that bringest good tidings to Jerusalem! Lift it up, fear not! Say to the cities of Juda: “Behold your God”.’”
Last of all, in might and in meekness, would come the monarch Himself: “Behold the Lord shall come with strength and His arm shall rule! Behold His reward is with Him and His work is before Him! He shall feed His flock like a shepherd! He shall gather together the lambs with his arm and shall take them up in His bosom and He shall Himself carry them that are with young” (Isaias 40:1-11).
On words like these men dreamed in and about Jerusalem. At length, in the midst of such a wistful, waiting, hungering world, “The word of the Lord came to John, the son of Zachary, in the desert and John the Baptist came baptizing and preaching in the desert of Judæa and into all the country about the Jordan. Preaching the baptism of penance for the remission of sins and saying: ‘Do penance! For the kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’”
To very many, when he first appeared, John could not have been unknown. There were those who had heard the wonderful things connected with his birth; his father Zachary and his mother Elizabeth were too prominently placed for that event to be easily forgotten. Moreover, the behavior of John himself had kept it well before them. From the first he had lived his life aloof: “And the child grew and was strengthened in spirit and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation in Israel.”
He had lived in the deserts of Judæa, yet not so far away but that men might find him if they would; and the fascination of the hermit, the fascination that surrounds all lonely souls, had already drawn men to him.
But now he began to move; he began to assume a new role. Though he clung about the neighborhood of the city, and still loved the desert places, yet was he often found upon the high roads that passed through them, especially the great main road that led up from the Jordan to Jerusalem.
Moreover, his preaching had taken a new turn. Whatever before it had been, now deliberately he proclaimed himself a prophet, a herald of a coming kingdom. He spoke with a new and independent authority; reverent as he was, he assumed a position of his own. He proclaimed a new beginning, repentance for the past, bringing back religion into life; he took hold of the old ceremonial of baptism, as a sign of sorrow, and forgiveness, and reform, and gave it a fresh significance.
It is important here to notice the place which John held in the minds of the people; important because upon it depends much of the action of Jesus in His early public life. While John was prominent on the scene, Jesus bided in the background; only when John was removed did He come actively forward. The death of John was, it would seem, coincident with the first mission of the twelve Apostles; the last appeal to the Jews in the temple, before Jesus finally left it, was made in the name of John.
1. One evangelist gives to his birth a prominence greater than he gives to that of Jesus Himself. Much more than half of St. Luke’s first chapter is occupied with it; the story of Our Lord’s conception and nativity is more shortly told, and, except for the appearance of the Angels to the shepherds, there is less of the wonderful, more of the commonplace, in the whole narration.
2. Three evangelists point to him as the first great fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, while the fourth lifts him to a rank unique among all the prophets. It would be difficult to speak of any man with greater solemnity than this: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. This man came for a witness to give testimony of the light that all men might believe through him. He was not the light, but was to give testimony of the light” (John 1:6-8).
3. Lastly Jesus Himself speaks of him in terms which raise him above any other man that has lived. “And when the messengers of John were departed He began to speak to the multitudes concerning John: ‘What went ye out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are in costly apparel and live delicately, are in the houses of kings! But what went ye out to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you and more than a prophet! This is he of whom it is written: “Behold I send My Angel before thy face who shall prepare the way before thee!” For I say unto you among those who are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist!’” (Matthew 11:7-11. Luke 1:24-28).
Nor was this the only occasion; at another time He spoke of him as “A burning and a shining light” (John 5:35) and yet again as “Elias that is to come” (Matthew 11:14).
4. To all this must be added the extraordinary reverence paid to the name of John throughout all this period, which continued steady and unabated even when the name of Jesus had waned. For instance:
1. On this account, though he held him prisoner, Herod hesitated to execute him: “Having a mind to put him to death He feared the people because they esteemed him as a prophet.” (Matthew 14:5).
2. While he was in prison his disciples never ceased to keep him informed of all that was going on in Galilee: “And John’s disciples told him Of all these things.” (Luke 7:18).
3. They followed his advice in their attitude to Jesus Himself: “John the Baptist sent us to see Thee saying: ‘Art thou He that art to come or look we for another?’” (Luke 7:20).
4. After he had been put to death his disciples did honor to his body: “Which his disciples hearing, they came and took his body and buried it in a tomb and came and told Jesus” (Matthew 14:12; Mark 6:29).
5. After his death Herod his murderer lived in constant fear of him: “Now at that time Herod the tetrarch, heard the fame of Jesus and of all the things that were done by Him. And he said to his servants: ‘This is John the Baptist! He is risen from the dead and therefore mighty works show forth themselves in Him!’ And he was in doubt, because it was said by some that John was risen from the dead; but by other some that Elias hath appeared; and by others that one of the old prophets was risen again. Which Herod, hearing, said: ‘John I have beheaded! But who is this of whom I hear such things? John whom I beheaded, he is risen from the dead! And he sought to see him” (Matthew 14:1-2; Mark 6:14-16; Luke 9:7-9).
6. At a much later date his evidence for Jesus is quoted in Judæa as being more convincing even than miracles: “And He went again beyond Jordan unto that place where John was baptizing first and there He abode and many resorted to Him and they said: ‘John indeed did no sign, but all things whatsoever John said of this man, were true and many believed in Him” (John 10:40-42).
7. On the very last day of His public teaching Jesus is able to confute His enemies by an appeal to the baptism of John: “For all men counted John that he was a prophet indeed” (Matthew 21:23-27; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8).
8. Years afterwards, when the Church had spread far abroad, disciples of John are still to be met with who, “Being fervent in spirit, spoke and taught diligently the things that are of Jesus, knowing only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25).
Though this coming of John need not at first have seemed very remarkable, for others of his kind had from time to time appeared, still there was that about him and his preaching which differentiated him from all the rest. Above all was his method different from that of the spiritual leaders whom the men of Judæa had been wont to follow. These came before them particular in their dress, their fringes and their phylacteries, conforming with exaggerated detail to their interpretation of the Law. He discarded all this; he would not even heed common convention. He would clothe himself with just that which came first to hand; he would eat just that which nature placed within his reach in the wilderness, and nothing more.
“And the same John had his garments of camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins and his meat was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4).
His preaching, too, was different. Their guides taught them the details of the Law and its minute obligations placing in their observance the height of sanctity. John never mentioned these; he broke right through them and dived into the very hearts of men. He appealed to their inner knowledge of themselves, of right and wrong, of good and evil, truth and falsehood. If they would have ceremonial, then let it be such as declared the soul, true acknowledgment of evil done, true reform of life, true preparation for whatever was to come.
Preaching such as this soon began to tell. Travelers up to Jerusalem, merchants from the East, pilgrims coming to the festivals, would look at this strange figure, and listen for a while, and pass by. They might affect to disregard him; they might call this man but another fanatic revivalist; they might say the things he taught were of no concern to them; busy, preoccupied as they were, they might resent the intrusion as unwarranted, vulgar, unseemly. Still would the chance words they heard refuse to leave them; they had pierced their hearts and their consciences and would not be quieted.
These men went on their way they talked among themselves; they linked this teaching up with the teaching of the Law, and saw that it gave the Law new life. Gradually they came back, bringing other with them; some only curious to see this new phenomenon some in timid hope that here might be a new beginning; some, who had hungered for long years, seeing already in this sudden revelation a sign that the day of salvation was at hand. They came and they were conquered; they came to learn and they discovered themselves. From the city they came and from the hill country round about; they would not return till by an open avowal they had confessed their belief in this man.
“Then went out to him all the country of Judaea and all they of Jerusalem and all the country about Jordan and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Such a movement could not fail soon to attract those in authority, the guardians of the Law, the doctors in Israel, the men who, first among all, were to recognize and welcome the Messias when He came. They knew the signs, they interpreted the prophets; when they were fulfilled it would be for them to judge; in the meantime they were the masters, of Israel and of its Temple. Of course this John, whoever he might prove to be, must never be allowed to interfere with their prerogative.
On the other hand so long as there was no sign, and little fear of that, he might be countenanced; out of such revivals usually grew a greater observance in the Temple. They would go down to him themselves; they would support the movement by their presence; by their own submission to this ceremonial of the Baptist they would give it a mark of their approval. In this way at least they would keep a hold upon this new preacher, whom already it might be dangerous to oppose.
But the Baptist was not to be deceived. Not for nothing had he spent his years of preparation in the desert, studying men, learning men as only he can learn them who leads his life apart, sifting the truth from the falsehood of their ways. Not for nothing had he searched the Scriptures, and separated grain from chaff. The specious defense that these people held up before themselves, that they were the children of Abraham, that they were the chosen of God, that they were therefore secure from rejection, must be broken down if the “way of the Lord” was to be made straight.
Plainly and at once they must be told of their crafty nature, of their blind self-deception, of the emptiness of their claim. If they would rightly inherit their birthright there must be truth to the core; there must be a renewal of the inner man, there must be no make-belief, no substitute of outward show for sincerity. The fruits they produced must be from themselves, not from the hollow fulfillment of a hollow Law.
He spoke alike to all, but it was to the Pharisees and scribes mingled with the crowd that his words were specially addressed. Mercilessly he spoke to them; from the beginning there should be no mistake. After submission of heart, the one great mountain to be leveled before the Lord could come to His Own was the hardened refuse piled up and trodden down about the Law.
“And seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees, coming to his baptism, he said to the multitudes that came forth to be baptized by him: ‘Ye brood of vipers! Who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance! And do not begin to say within yourselves “We have Abraham for our father!” For I say to you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit Shall be cut down And cast into the fire.”
Language such as this was not to be mistaken. From the outset John threw down the gauntlet, refusing to parley; it was a declaration of war with a definite enemy, which was to end only on Calvary.
The people heard, but the significance of the challenge passed them by. They were too much concerned with themselves to take much heed of the Pharisees and Scribes; it was enough for them that the Baptist taught the need of “fruits worthy of penance.” They asked for further light and guidance. They were a motley crew, for the most part men of no particular religious reputation; common men, tax-collectors bearing an ill name, soldiers restless and discontented, whose power and position gave them opportunity for every kind of evil, poor folk from the country-side, not over-burdened with intelligence, still more wanting in instruction, whose hard lives had closed their hands to their neighbors and had killed in them the first elements of love.
But they wished to rise to better things; and here was one who would teach them how they might do it. They asked him, and to them John altered his tone; treated them tenderly as sheep that had no shepherd; imposed on them no burden heavier than they could bear; simply, in language of their own, told them just the duties of their state of life. In these last words of counsel there is a gentleness and sympathy or nature which goes far to explain the hold of John upon the people; it is an anticipation or Him Who “Would not crush the broken reed And smoking flax would not extinguish.”
“And the people asked Him saying: ‘What then shall we do?’ And He answering said to them: ‘He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner!’ And the publicans also came to be baptized and said to Him: ‘Master what shall we do?’ But He said to them: ‘Do nothing more than that which is appointed unto you!’ And the soldiers also asked Him saying: ‘And what shall we do?’ And He said to them: ‘Do violence to no man. Neither calumniate any man and be content with your pay.’”
Can we now picture to ourselves this first appearance of the Baptist? He came into a world with an ancient tradition, with a belief, a conviction, that a great future lay before it, yet were both tradition and belief marred by the dross that had gathered round them. He came among men intent upon their own affairs, especially their own political affairs, in consequence suspicious, self-centered, prone to hatred.
Religion for them was a rigid, stereotyped substitute form; against its claims and ever-growing tyranny many had long since begun to chafe, though they could not lay aside the old inheritance, nor rid themselves of its ceremonial, nor reject altogether the hope in the future which it gave. He came at a time when many, eager souls as well as souls that feared, were on the tip-toe of expectation, strained so far that they were in danger of despair.
He came and stood in the desert by the river, at the gateway leading into Judæa, on the very spot that was still hallowed by the memory of the prophet Elias, hard upon the main road along which the busy world had to pass; a weird, uncouth, unkempt, terrible figure, in harmony with his surroundings, of single mind, unflinching, fearing none, respecter of no person, asking for nothing, to whom the world with its judgments was of no account whatever though he showed that he knew it through and through, all its castes and all its colors.
He came the censor of men, the terror of men, the warning to men, yet winning men by his utter sincerity; telling them plainly the truth about themselves and forcing them to own that he was right; drawing them by no soft inducements, but by the hard lash of his words, and by the solemn threat of doom that awaited them who would not hear; distinguishing true heart-conversion from the false conversion of conformity, religion that lived in the soul from that sham thing of mere inheritance and law; going down into the depths of human nature in his ceaseless search for “the true Israelite in whom there was no guile.”
An Angel and no man, fearless voice to which the material world seemed as nothing compelling attention, fascinating even those who would have passed him by, making straight the path through the hearts of men; cleansing, baptizing, pointing to truth, life, but as yet, until all was prepared, saying nothing of that Lord, Whose coming he was sent to herald, content to foretell only the Kingdom; John, the focus upon which all the gathered light of the Old Dispensation converge, from which was to radiate the light of the New.
All this those felt who now began to ask, concerning themselves: “What then shall we do?” concerning him: “Who is he?”―crowds of every kind, publicans, soldiers, citizens from the great towns and country villages, patronizing Pharisees and submissive disciples.
2. The Prophecy of the Messias
The minds of men being what they were, and the tension of the times so great, it was inevitable that questions should be asked concerning John himself. There was the evidence of his early life, and it was confirmed by the evidence of the present; men had found one in whom they believed, who spoke on his own authority, and not after the manner of the Pharisees and Scribes. The time was at hand; the Messias, so it was said both by the common folks and by those who ought to know, was due at any moment.
When He came, He might well be expected to be such a one as John. The question was answered by a rumor; the rumor spread, growing ever more credible as the number grew that favored it. Was not John the anointed of the Lord, and would he not soon reveal himself?
This was John’s opportunity. Hitherto he had spoken only of the Kingdom and of the preparation for it; now it was time to announce the King. These simple people had submitted to his baptism, and had thus proved their goodwill; he would take them further and show them that there was a Baptism yet to come which would put his own to naught.
They had grown in devotion to himself; he would assure them that to the One Who was soon to stand amongst them he was not fit to be a slave. His own baptism was only of dead water; that which was to come would be of living spirit. His did but wash the outer surface, for the rest was a symbol and no more; that which was to follow would reach the very soul, would try it as gold is tried in the fire, would be a source of very life, not merely a sign of penance.
He would tell them this, and he would tell it in language such as these simple country people could understand. Up the hill in the distance might be seen some husbandman at work, blowing away with his fan the chaff from his heap of corn, the rich grain purified settling on the floor beneath. It was a happy illustration for his purpose; it would emphasize each point, the utter purity of the Kingdom, the utter truth of the King, the blessedness of membership, the evil of rejection, the added sanction to the belief in eternal bliss or punishment, which had struggled to the light through the ages.
“And as the people were of opinion and all were thinking in their hearts of John that perhaps he might be the Christ. John answered and preached saying unto all: ‘I indeed baptize you in water unto penance. But He that shall come after me Is mightier than I, Whose shoes I am not worthy to bear, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. He shall Baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire. Whose fan is in His hand and He will thoroughly cleanse His floor and will gather His wheat into His barn’”
Again let us sum up the impression, for on a clear understanding of this scene depends much that is to follow. With hearts lost to him these simple folk believed in John; given such sincerity they could not hold back. With their eyes of longing turned towards the future, to the sun that was to rise above the eastern hills, and with the light of the past shining red behind them, setting over Jerusalem and the mountains of Judaea.
They could not but ask themselves whether at last the time had come; whether this singular man, who proclaimed a new Kingdom to be near, who knew the secret of its membership, were not indeed the Messias; whether the signs they were to look for were not upon him; the superhuman vision that made him a safe guide; the conquering conviction that compelled assent; the likeness to the prophets of old whose line had long since perished; the knowledge of hearts, the message of repentance, the opening of the way to new life, the insistence on utter truth, the contempt of formalism.
Miracles and signs of that kind they did not expect, such things were not in their category; it was miracle enough that he baptized as with power and spoke as one having authority.
In this spirit they had come to him, and he had received them. Tenderly, gradually he had led them higher, yet never yielding one whit of his sternness. Humbly, without fear of losing hold upon them, he had debased himself before the Light that was to come: “He was not the light but was to give testimony of the light.”
Firmly he had repeated to them the need of preparation for its coming. Let there be no mistake; the Master Who is to come is One Who will not be deceived. He will see through the outward appearance; He will not be content with mere form; He will search the hearts of men, and will have no surface substitute; He will accept none but the true, the sincere, the genuine; He will not endure the husks with the grain, but will have that grain purified at whatever cost, even though with His Own hand He must waft the husks away.
One can feel how and why John puts this utter truth of Jesus above all things else, utterly true Himself, seeking only utter truth in others, Whose work in the world would be to “bear witness to the truth” and to be believed, as John himself had been believed, on His Own authority alone. To a people grown stereotyped in form, to whom a species of self-deception had come to be considered a virtue, this was essentially John’s message, and was indeed “good tidings of great joy”.
The Evangelists one and all imply that, if they would, they could say much more concerning John: “And many other things exhorting did he preach to the people.”
But for the present this must be enough. More will yet follow; he is too important, his witness is too convincing, to be set aside with this single notice. Still it is sufficient that here he should be set before us, a gaunt figure on the horizon of the yellow-brown desert, the Judaean hills before him with the Holy City beyond, the Dead Sea with its memories of doom on his left down below, the sun rising over the hills of Moab and brightening the sky behind, while he stands between two eras, the link between the old and the new, the summary of the past and the foreshadowing of the future.
3. The Baptism of Jesus
It is at this moment, and in the midst of circumstances such as these, that Jesus at length makes His appearance. There is no great disturbance, neither Nazareth nor Judaea notice it. It is the late season of the year, when the countryside is bare and work in the fields is less pressing.
It is on the occasion of some festival, it may have been the feast of Tabernacles in October, when numbers make towards the Holy City. The news concerning John and his baptism has reached as far as Galilee, and a carpenter living at the upper end of Nazareth, with others who have long “waited for the consolation of Israel,” goes up by the ordinary route that runs alongside the Jordan, crossing the river into Judaea at the ford where John is preaching and baptizing.
Like the rest of the band of pilgrims He stops at the ford to listen to the earnest preacher; like others who have come well-disposed, when the preaching is over, He draws nearer and adjusts His clothing to take the step which is proof of a sinner’s submission. He waits till all the rest are baptized, yielding to the eager throng that presses forward, Himself easily unnoticed and pushed aside; then, the very last in the group of penitents that day, He Himself walks into the water.
This is the simple matter of fact as the evangelists give it to us. There is not, and obviously during the last eighteen years there has not been, the least indication that Jesus of Nazareth is anything more than any of the men standing round Him. Even John on a later occasion declares that at first he did not know Him Who He was; for that even he required a direct revelation from above.
“And John gave testimony saying I saw the Spirit coming down as a dove from Heaven and He remained upon Him and I knew Him not but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me: ‘He upon Whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending He it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.’ And I saw and I gave testimony that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34).
Still, already before the revelation was given, naturally, Instinctively, John stayed his hand; he hesitated to baptize. Though he knew not all that Jesus was, yet as a relative he knew Him. He knew the story of His birth, so intimately connected with his own he knew what his own mother had said of Him; if before he was born he had leaped for joy at His coming, now when they met he could not fail to be stirred.
Whoever Jesus was, John knew He was no sinner, and this baptism was not for such as He; whoever He was, by comparison with Him John himself could scarcely be called clean. Was His coming then a sign that it was time for him to yield, and allow this better man to take his place? He stayed his arm; he made a sign of protest; for a moment he held Jesus back.
“But John stayed Him saying: ‘I ought to be Baptized by Thee and comest Thou to me?’”
The answer of Jesus confirmed the recognition; it was the answer of one man to another whom He knew and who knew Him. It was also an answer of command; Jesus did not hide from John that He understood, and accepted the honor done to Him.
Though He submits, yet is He the Master; it is the same Jesus, acting in precisely the same way as the Jesus of eighteen years before in the Temple, Master of His Mother and Joseph, yet afterwards in all things “subject to them.” Though He stands there in the stream to be baptized, yet the baptism is not given without His order; it is the same Jesus as, three years later, was the Jesus of Calvary Who submitted unto death yet laid down His life when and as He chose and in no other way.
Thus though the words He speaks are those of complete subjection, nevertheless there is in them the authority and firmness of one Who had a mission to fulfill and Who knew exactly all that it included; before the Spirit came upon Him Jesus knew.
“And Jesus answering said to him: ‘Suffer it to be so now. For so it becomes us to fulfill all justice.’”
There was nothing more to be said or done. Submissively the meek John baptized the meek, submissive Jesus; Jesus had indeed begun at the very beginning. The crowd, already baptized, was threading its way homeward; the few that remained noticed nothing strange; it would seem that what then happened was known alone to John and Jesus. He came up out of the water; for a moment He stood upon the bank absorbed in prayer; while He prayed, with His eyes raised upward, a common attitude as we shall often see:
“Lo! He saw the heavens opened to Him and He saw the Spirit of God descending in a bodily shape as a dove and coming and remaining upon Him and behold there came a voice from Heaven saying: ‘This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased! Thou art My beloved Son In Thee I am well pleased.”
When we read separately the three accounts of the baptism of Jesus, it seems manifest that, to each of the evangelists the chief part of the story the “voice from Heaven” and the witness that it gave. Next it would seem the mere construction of the sentences, more especially the narrative of St. Luke, that the coming of Jesus of His Own accord to be baptized, and the humiliation of baptism, are looked upon as preludes to this; the first public act of self-abasement being followed by the first solemn declaration by the Father, the formal acceptance the Sonship of Man, with all its sin to be atoned for, be rewarded by acknowledgement as the Son of God; true Man, with the consequent burden, true God, with consequent right.
“He hath humbled Himself therefore hath God exalted Him”.
This would seem to be the meaning of the mystery, ... the “voice from Heaven” compels us to link up this scene with that other scene later when the same “voice from Heaven” uttered the same words, the Transfiguration. As then vision and the voice were confined to three, so now are they confined to one; as then they were given to confirm three in the faith they had already professed, so now would seem they were permitted to confirm and enlighten the Baptist. It was the sign that he looked for, henceforth he knew; and it was meet that he should know, both a reward for his fidelity and as a guide through what was now to come.
But for the rest all was darkness. The people were given to see nothing; they were to discover for themselves other signs as time went on, or not at all. From the beginning to the end Jesus would thrust Himself on no one, would give such signs as, if men chose, they could question and reject; He would come to them as one of themselves and they should come to Him in response. He would have their willing faith only, their spontaneous allegiance only, the more free, the more their own, the better. That this might be engendered and developed He would bide His time, He would go ever so slowly, He would endure unceasing disappointment, endless misunderstanding; He would even submit to the failure of many if only in the end He could win true faith and love and trust and glad allegiance from a few. If we forget this feature of the character of Jesus we lose the key to many mysteries.
4. The Witness of John the Baptist
Two months had now passed by since Jesus had come to be baptized. During all that time John had waited, looking for a further sign; meanwhile up in Jerusalem the talk was growing rife. Already John had warned his hearers that they should not mistake him, that they should not count him for more than he claimed to be; but that sort of warning did not carry far. The Scribes and Pharisees had shown him respect; men continued to talk; the more vulgar and more easily affected were growing in enthusiasm; they were quoting the prophets, raking up old local traditions, and applying them to him.
Some were asking whether he were not the Christ that was to come; others claimed that at least he was Elias returned, seeing that it was from the very spot where he preached that Elias had been carried to Heaven in the chariot of fire (4 Kings chapter 2); others again, clinging more to the present, would maintain that he was a prophet, independent and inspired as the prophets of old, that the age of the prophets was returning. The talk was persistent, was threatening; it was time the authorities, the oracles of the Law, took more notice of this man and his pretended mission.
Yet what could they do? To condemn him unquestioned was unwise; to persecute and silence him might be dangerous. Besides, as they had owned from the beginning, there might be something in all this gossip. Were he indeed a prophet, or Elias, above all were he Christ Himself, they would need to be careful before they passed sentence. There must be some kind of formal enquiry; they would send trustworthy men to the Jordan to cross-examine him; whether he were all men said of him or not, they would judge him from his own mouth. Thus while Jesus in the desert but a few miles away was being tested by Satan the Tempter, John His witness was being questioned by the priests of Judaea; the time would come when the two powers would combine, and would test their victim with terrible effect.
The court of enquiry came down, priests and Levites, all of the sect of the Pharisees, sticklers for the Law, hard interpreters of the Scripture, suspicious of any innovation that was not of their own making, tolerating none but their own ceremonial, men not likely to let slip any single advantage. They came in all their authority; they stood about the Baptist and watched him. When he paused they came forward; they let him see that this meeting was more than a casual affair, as they put their question, “Who art thou?”
And John understood. They meant more than the question conveyed. Deepest in their hearts, what made them anxious above all things, was the doubt whether or not he might indeed be the Messias. Of that anxiety he would at once relieve them; on that point at least they could set their minds at ease.
“And he confessed and did not deny and he confessed ‘I am not the Christ!’”
The main point was thus quickly settled. Next was the question raised among the people; at least to them, official judges from the Temple, he would be bound to give an answer. “And they asked him: ‘What then? Art thou Elias?’”
They were not disappointed; again he could reassure them; they had a right to question him and he had a duty to reply.
“And he said I am not.”
Still there was a further question. Once on a time Moses had spoken of a prophet that was to come; whether or not he had meant the Messias was a question disputed in the schools. He had said: “The Lord thy God will raise up to thee
A prophet from the midst of thee Of thy brethren Like unto me Unto him shall ye hearken”; and again: “I will raise them up a prophet From among their brethren Like unto thee And I will put My words in his mouth And he shall speak unto them All that I shall command him And it shall come to pass That whosoever will not hearken unto My words Which he shall speak in My name I will require it of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18, 19).
This man might be that prophet; if he were, then again, from the warning of Moses himself, they would need to receive him carefully. So again they asked him: “Art thou the prophet?” and again they received the emphatic and laconic answer: “No.”
After that there was little that need trouble them. They had learnt nothing; they had only satisfied themselves on the points that gave anxiety to their masters in Jerusalem; the rest could matter very little. Still it would be well to learn something positive. John had said who he was not, could he be induced to say who he claimed to be?
“Then they said to him Who art thou? That we may give an answer to them that sent us.”
The question was contemptuous enough. For their part, they seemed to say, they cared not who he was; their business was official, their enquiry was official, and no more. And as such John treated them; he gave them the answer he had given when he had first formally begun his preaching, and until they asked for more he would give them nothing else.
“He said: ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord” As the prophet Isaias said.’”
It was the same answer, and yet in the last sentence there seemed to be a note of rebuke. Of course, that was not to be permitted to affect such men as these. They were “of the Pharisees”, and were above such hints; they were priests and Levites, and needed not to be told what the prophets said. Still they could not but retaliate. They would feign a counter-attack; if he hinted a rebuke to them they would openly rebuke him. It is a common method of falsehood.
“And they asked him and said to him: ‘Why then dost thou baptize if thou be not Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet?’”
The fourth title they ignored, the only one which John had claimed: “The voice of one crying in the desert.”
And in like manner John ignored their question. By what authority he baptized he would not tell them, for he had already told them what sufficed. He would call attention only to the nature of his baptism, which was feeble enough in itself. He would argue no more about himself; instead, with these men, whose duty and office it was to hear, he would seize the opportunity to proclaim Him for Whom he himself had come. They had pretended to be seeking the Messias; he would tell them He was at hand.
“John answered them saying: ‘I baptize in water, but there hath stood one in the midst of you Whom you know not.
The same is He that shall come after me, Who is preferred before me. The latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose.’”
We are told the exact spot where this cross-examination and this momentous declaration were made; Bethania across the Jordan, as distinguished from the better-known Bethania higher up the road at the foot of Olivet. We are even given a hint as to the day. In other words it would seem that the evangelist, John, who tells the story, was a witness of the scene; and it would seem that he looks upon it as one of the landmarks in the revelation of the Son of God. And indeed it was; there at the gate of Judaea the King was formally announced to the leaders of the Jews in solemn conclave; there from the first, had they wished it, they might have found and known their Messias.
5. The First Disciples
It was now two months, as we have said, since Jesus had appeared by the Jordan, during all which time John had patiently waited for the next sign that was to guide him. He had gone on preaching as before, but with even more assurance; now that the Lord had definitely appeared he was able to speak of His presence with greater emphasis. As for the rest he was content to wait; he had already waited long, and had learnt to abide the moment of God.
At length one day, the day after the examination by the priests and Levites, Jesus again was seen, walking towards him on the other side of the Jordan, the side of Jerusalem and Jericho. “The next day John saw Jesus coming to him.”
There was nothing at all about Him to distinguish Him from any other man, as there had been nothing to distinguish Him during all these eighteen years. He walked down the bank of the river as He had walked down the streets of Nazareth, so like others that after thirty years not a neighbor had discovered in Him anything of note. He came down the riverside as one might who took a walk, apparently with no special aim, occupied with His Own thoughts, interfering with, intruding Himself on, no one; so that, had John not observed Him, He might have passed by and none would have noticed.
Such is His first appearance when He opens His campaign.
But John recognized Him, and could not let Him so pass by. He was there to be the witness to Him, and he knew the time was come to declare Him. He must point Him out to those around him; yet to do so he chose a singular description. Hitherto he had spoken of Him in terms that inspired awe and fear—“the Lord”, “the wrath to come”, “the axe laid to the root”, “the mightier than I Whose shoes I am not worthy to bear,” “Whose fan is in His hand”, “Who will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire”.
Now on a sudden all is changed. He harks back to that lamb of Moses, whose blood was shed for the redemption of his people. As he spoke, there would have been some in whom the words he used must have awakened memories, not least that prophecy of Isaias, that the future Messias would one day be led “As a lamb to the slaughter not opening His mouth.”
John knew that the announcement he made, concerning such a man as he pointed out, would be well nigh incredible to any who heard him. He had spoken of the Messias as a great King to come, for Whom the valleys were to be filled up and the crooked ways made straight; he had spoken of himself as the forerunner of all this pomp and greatness; how then could it be that the countryman across the river, from His dress evidently a Galilean, from His manner no one in particular, should be the King for Whom they were looking and longing?
Even to John himself the paradox had been overwhelming; even he at first had failed to recognize Him in this garb; with all his knowledge; and interior perception he had needed a Divine revelation to enable him to understand. All the more, then, must he emphasize the fact; that man, even that seemingly plain man Who passed by them, was in very truth the Lamb of God, was all that the prophet Isaias included in the term “Son of God”; impossible as it seemed, nevertheless he had it on the same authority as he had his own commission to baptize.
“And he saith Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him Who taketh away the sin of the world. This is He of Whom I said: ‘After me cometh a man who is preferred before me,’ because He was before me and I knew Him not but that He may be made manifest in Israel. Therefore am I come baptizing in water and John gave testimony saying: ‘I saw the Spirit coming as a dove from Heaven and He remained upon Him and I knew Him not, but He Who sent me to baptize in water said to me: “He upon Whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, He it is that Baptizeth with the Holy Ghost” and I saw and I gave testimony that this is the Son of God.’”
At times the words read almost as if John had spoken them in self-defense, to justify his own bold action. Incredible as it seemed, over this man and no other the signs had appeared; and he had obeyed the signs, he had listened to the voice of faith instead of to the voice of human reason, let the consequences be what they might.
Jesus passed on His way down the riverside, and the shrubs and willows soon hid Him from sight. He had given to John no sign of recognition; He had made no effort to be known. As before, as everywhere, He would intrude Himself on no one; before He began He would wait for man to make the first advance. The next day He would come again, and again and again if need be; in the end, if only out of curiosity, someone would take notice of the Baptist’s repeated witness. And as for John, he too would wait in patience. What more he should do was not made manifest to him; he was to be a witness and no more, and with that for the present he would be content.
But the very next day the change came. It was well on in the afternoon, when the sun was still high overhead and the road was quiet. John was at the ford, but was resting; With him were a few followers, members of a chosen group which had gathered round the Baptist and which, as disciples from a master, had begun to receive from him a special training. To this group John had already given lessons in prayer; he had taught it the practice of penance; he had prepared it that its members, should the need come, might go forth and preach and baptize. As of old the prophet Elias had built up a school of prophets, so did John lay the foundations of a school that should carry on his work until the Messias definitely appeared.
While, then, these were seated beside the river, the same figure came walking towards them on the other side; the figure of a working man, remarkable in nothing, save perhaps that He was deeply occupied with His Own thoughts. Again John looked up at Him, watching Him intently but doing nothing more; again he uttered the same words: “Behold the Lamb of God.”
This time he did not speak in vain. Two men of the group—they were both from Galilee, which would imply that they had already definitely thrown in their lot with John—could not but be struck by the repetition of their master’s words. Whoever He was, whatever His appearance, the Man that walked down the opposite bank was in John’s mind someone of importance. It was the afternoon, there was nothing to detain them; they would follow this Man and see what they could discover about Him.
They let Him go forward; then they crossed the river, and walked down the narrow path behind Him; unknown to themselves the first followers of Christ. They followed Him in silence till the very distance betrayed them. The way they were going was no ordinary route; it led nowhere in particular; no one would go along that path but for a purpose; hitherto He had always gone that way alone. Obviously, therefore, they were tracking Him; clearly He was justified in speaking to them. He slackened His pace; He let them come nearer; as a stranger who speaks to a stranger in a lonely place, the loneliness making them companions, He turned about and accosted them.
“And Jesus turning and seeing them following Him, saith to them: ‘What seek you?’”
Such are the first words that Jesus spoke to men at the beginning of His mission. They are a key to all that followed after; they might be taken as the motto of His life.
6. The Death of John the Baptist
Now there comes upon the scene another character, whose name provokes only contempt; except for this, that with such an ancestry, and with such an upbringing, contempt is softened into pity. Herod Antipas, the son of the Great Herod who had rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, and had massacred the Innocents in Bethlehem, and had died of a foul disease while his hands were still steeped in blood, had been reigning tetrarch of Galilee for these thirty years and more.
The Romans had put him there when, on his father’s death, they had found it convenient for themselves to partition the country. Their soldiers kept him there, at once a watch upon him and a guard to overawe the people. Their officials ruled the district for him, including Galilee and all Perea, with such Jewish assistance as was needed for their purpose. As for himself, so long as he gave no trouble, he could do very much as he liked.
And he did as he liked. The reaction from the cruel treatment of his boyhood had been great. Bred of a stock of mingled Eastern and Western blood, born of a merciless father, brought up in constant and imminent fear, with the blood of his brethren and relations continually flowing about him, an atheist of atheists with not a noble ideal in his soul, he had made up his mind, once he was secure, to compensate at any cost for the misery of his early life. What a time during these last years he had had! Convention scattered to the winds; an Eastern monarch was beyond convention and criticism, and the blood of the Eastern monarch was in him.
Safe from the prying eyes of his people he had fortified himself in his palace of Machaerus, aloft in the mountains overlooking the Dead Sea. There he had lived, with pleasure only as his object, growing more callous and cruel as he indulged himself the more, gathering about him such courtiers as would encourage him in his revels, petty magnates, local rulers, rich men who affected Magdala, women who were ready to sell themselves for a share in his orgies. For thirty years it had gone on, from bad to worse; for just those thirty years during which Jesus, his subject, was hidden away at Nazareth.
Then had appeared that interfering John. In the midst of his revels, for a single crime committed, one man had dared to denounce him to his face. He had put him in prison; for security he had taken him far away from his favorite Jordan. He had locked him up in the dungeon of his own castle; and though all the world had resented it, yet not a man subject to him had dared to raise a hand in protest. To the Romans, moreover, John was of no concern. The Jews with their religion were a dangerous thing to handle; so long as Herod did not go beyond their law he could do with his own zealots what he liked. Indeed the more he embroiled himself with them the more his Roman overlords would like it. With John in prison Herod knew he had nothing to fear.
But unfortunately the trouble had not ended there. Herod had visited John in prison. He was always curious about religious revivalists, always on the lookout for a fresh excitement and distraction, and such men as John were a diversion. Moreover, as is common with his kind, he was superstitious, and John had for him an irresistible fascination. But these visits had strangely affected him.
John in prison began to gain a hold on Herod. His anger had waned, and had gradually changed to awe, his awe to fear, fear to respect, and Herod had of late become less gay, less reckless, more thoughtful and moody. This had affected his courtiers. Their master of the revels was turning gloomy, morose, capricious, ill-tempered, unmanageable, uninterested; if they were not careful, now that age and unceasing self-indulgence were beginning to tell upon him, he might develop like his father and turn on them. It was all because of John; somehow John must be got out of the way. The women in particular would not be thwarted by such vermin. At Machaerus John lingered in his prison, surrounded by more enemies thirsting for his blood than his keeper Herod.
Among these women was one who had long made up her mind that he would be her victim. Herodias had been the wife of Philip, the brother of Herod, not the then ruling tetrarch of Ituraea and the country to the north, but an elder brother of that name. But he had been much too meek and quiet for Herodias, and his court was all too mild. Through Philip she had come to know his brother Herod; he and his way of living were much more suited to her taste. In spite of Philip she had angled for him; after all Philip had not cared. She had captured him; she had gone away with him to Machaerus, and there she had reigned as its queen.
Then had come this John from the Jordan with his unwarranted interference. She had had this serpent scotched; she had prevailed on Herod to close his mouth and clap him in prison, no matter what the despicable rabble might say. But she had not been able to do more. None of her further hints had been taken; none of her caresses had prevailed anything.
On the contrary; of late Herod had grown annoyed at the mention of the name of John, and she had found it prudent to desist. Still there was war declared between that woman in the palace and that man in prison, war to the death, war for the soul of Herod, war for her own throne; if she failed she was cast out from her world of revelry, she and her daughter with her. But she would not fail. She would bide her time; like a tigress she would watch her opportunity, and, when the occasion came, like a tigress she would spring.
At last the occasion did come. John had now been in prison some four months. The Pasch was drawing near; within a week or a fortnight pilgrims would be coming down the Jordan valley through Peraea to go up to Jerusalem. They would miss John at the ford; they would certainly talk about him. That he was known to be alive over at Machaerus might stir trouble; and trouble at paschal time was liable to be hard to control. Herodias was more on the alert than ever.
But before the Pasch there was held every year at Machaerus a much more solemn festival. About that time was Herod’s birthday; more important still, it was the anniversary of Herod’s coming to the crown, and Herod always celebrated this event with more than customary revelry.
This year, both Herod and Herodias took care that the ceremony and feasting should be more than usually brilliant. To him the year had not been a very great success. Both his marriage and this business with John had, he suspected, put him out of favor, even with his boon companions. He must live the matter down; he must brazen it out; he must be more lavish than usual. Such people easily forgave a brave fellow, who affected not to care, who defied God and man, and whose wealth and luxuries were at their service. As for Herodias, she had her own plans.
Herod must be roused from this moroseness that was growing upon him; he was beginning to show signs of a conscience, and that must at once be killed. He was given to excess. When roused his passions would make him dare anything; when in a bragging mood there was nothing he might not say. Who knew what might not happen? To the fullest of her powers she would humor him, flatter him, capture him, even if she had to use her own daughter as a bait.
So it came about that in that year the celebration of Herod’s birthday was an unusually grand affair. Invitations had gone out, with special inducements and attractions, though experience had long since taught many that they would have a good time.
Caravans had come in, round the north of the Dead Sea, bringing petty chiefs from all about, and heads of the army, and magnates from Galilee and Peraea, Jews and Gentiles, Romans and Asiatics, round the loaded table of Herod they sank their differences; as for religion, though at home they said it was the breath of their nostrils, for the time being it was left outside.
Religion of any kind did not go well with Herod’s banquets; it was best forgotten for the moment. When the revelry was over, and some of them would need to make their way from Machaerus to Jerusalem for the Pasch, they could pick it up again along the road.
They settled down to table, stretched out on their couches; what happened then does not concern us. The more solid eating was done; the guests were feeling satisfied with themselves and with their host; Herod was on this account in better humor. Then came other amusements. There was music, stirring every nerve; dancing, stirring every passion; of that, too, we need not say more.
Only at a special moment, well-timed, a single dancing girl flashed in, and from the moment that her delicate foot touched the floor she had conquered every eye that glared at her. For glare at her they did; in their sodden state they would have glared at every dancing girl; had they been sober, a creature such as this would have caught them.
She danced and danced, and the jewels upon her danced with her. Like a snake she curved her lithe body, and the spell entered into every soul that was there. Her dark eyes of fire fascinated, her laughing lips invited, her whole figure drew. She addressed herself to all; at times, in the ecstasy of movement, she seemed to address herself to none; but all the while, with the subtlety of infinite guile, her meshes were all thrown in one direction. Herod! Cost what it might that man must be conquered. Her mother had impressed it on her, before she entered that room; she herself knew she was playing for a great stake.
And Herod responded. He knew her who she was, though many at the moment did not know. He was proud of her; he was won by her; she was a credit to his family and his court. He would reward her for this, though for the moment his heated brain could not tell him how. What would please the girl? She should choose for herself. Whatever she might ask, what did it matter?
The dancing ceased. With all the simplicity of a delicate maiden the damsel made her curtsey and smiled. The guests applauded, everyone applauded. In spite of their much experience these men had not seen dancing like this before; for once they were aroused. Who was the girl? Whence did she come? And the word went round that she was the daughter of Herodias, the former wife of Philip, the present wife of their host, Herod.
They turned their congratulations on him. This was indeed a crowning feat to such a sumptuous banquet; it did Herod honor. How proud he must be of such an addition to his household! And so on, and so on. In the world’s subtle way they let him know that if he was in need of their forgiveness for his act of indiscretion, he was forgiven.
And Herod’s heart was turned. He succumbed to their flattery. Filled with red wine, he cared not now what he said or did. The girl had danced his misery away; she had danced him back into the favor of his flatterers. She should be rewarded; in a right royal way he would reward her. When the applause had ceased, and the talk had sunk again into a murmur, at last he spoke. Loud and boasting and full of low passion he cried out: “Ask of me what thou wilt and I will give it thee.”
The girl stood still. She knew well the part she had to play. She affected to be frightened; she hesitated; in her heart what she sought was some assurance that her wily uncle would abide by his word. He saw her hesitation, the questioning look in her eyes; he was sober enough for that. He saw the guests gazing at him, gazing from him to her, astonished at his boldness, with their eyes almost challenging him to stand by what he said. He would not go back; nay, he would go further; these men should see what a daredevil he was. He leaned forward on the table towards the girl. He raised his arm as a pledge of his fidelity. He uttered a binding oath; then added, huskily, aggressively: “Whatsoever thou shalt ask I will give thee, though it be the half of my kingdom.”
It was enough; having sworn such an oath before so many witnesses Herod could never draw back. But she must not delay; he might yet repent; the guests would soon depart, and she would lose the influence of their presence. She made her bow and hurried from the room to her mother. To her she told her story. These two knew one another, worthy daughter of such a mother; they knew that their fathers were inevitably interlaced. They must plot together; in good and in evil they must take evil share.
“What shall I ask?” said the daughter, more than suspecting what the answer would be.
The mother did not hesitate. How she had waited for this moment! We can see the hard face set, intent upon its prey; the burning, hating eyes already glittering in their anticipated triumph; the beauty of that Asiatic countenance frozen into something terrible, as without a moment’s pause she hissed out: “The head of John the Baptist!”
There was no waiting. The maiden tripped back into the banqueting hall; merrily, gracefully, as if it were all only a child’s prank and whim. This time, as she came in, there was dead silence in the room; even the half-drunken men knew well what she might ask might be momentous. Then in the silence the damsel grew stern. The child rose suddenly to a woman. Her face took on her mother’s hard look, her eyes were fixed fast on Herod. With them she seemed to hold him to his promise, in some way to threaten him, even while with a graceful curtsey she said the words: “I will that forthwith thou give me, here in a dish, the head of John the Baptist.”
Such a request, on such an occasion, from such a creature! Even those hardened worldlings were appalled. They had heard in their time brazen women say many hideous things, and had laughed at them; angry women shriek out things which men would never dare to say, and had enjoyed it as a show. Romans among them had seen women, vestal virgins, in their amphitheaters, turn down their thumbs in heartless contempt, and so seal a gladiator’s doom. But this was something wholly different. That slight dancing girl, asking for the life of that man! Asking for his bleeding head as her plaything! That man’s life depending on the whim of such a creature! Even they could scarcely hold their indignation, their disgust.
Yet had Herod sworn to please her; he had sworn it in the presence of this crew. He could not draw back; his coward heart could not face that humiliation. She was daring him to do what he had promised; he must not be beaten. His face lost its color; he hung his head as if he wished to think. The silence grew more tense; every eye was upon him, above all the cruel eyes of that unflinching dancing girl. There was no escape; he must keep his promise. A negro guard of giant stature stood beside the curtain at the door. Herod gave him a sign. He had heard the girl’s request; let him see that it was granted to her. Let him go at once and bring back to him here on a dish the head of the prisoner, John the Baptist.
The guard saluted like an automaton, turned on his heel, lifted the curtain and disappeared; it was now too late for Herod to recall his words. In that room there was now amazing silence. Now and then one or another tried to break the spell but it would not be broken; they lifted the load that weighed on them, but it fell back again.
These men, one and all, had seen men die before; cruelty was a second nature to them. More than one had done a slave to death for a trifling annoyance; a woman’s death when she became inconvenient, was an ordinary thing to some amongst them; some had sanctioned death to satisfy a jealous wife. But this death, of this man, under these conditions, to please the whim of a laughing, smirking dancing girl—the horror of it would not leave them.
They looked at her where she stood on the floor in front of them, in all her finery and jewels, smiling as simply as if she were but toying with a trifle, yet with a set look in her eyes and a tightening of her lips which declared she would not be baulked of her prey. They admired, they hated, they were fascinated, they were repelled. They would not have missed this show for anything, yet they despised themselves for being there.
Presently there was heard a shuffling on the steps outside. The grip on those men grew more intense; their hearts stood still; like frozen corpses they lay around the table; in the midst, like a statue, stood the girl. The silken curtain at the entrance was drawn carefully aside; it must not be stained. From underneath, in all his richest armor and accoutrement, stepped the giant negro, swarthy, thick-muscled, carrying a silver dish.
On the dish was something; was it what they longed, yet feared to see? There was long dark hair hanging wet over the edge; there was darkened ooze dripping down it. Presently that upon the dish appeared, blue-black and livid, eyes half-open but lusterless, nose pinched to terror, cheeks sunk and hollow, lips apart as if they were prepared to speak, blood trickling out from either end. It was a human head; it was the head; those who had known him in life recognized the head of John the Baptist.
The negro stood at the entrance with his trophy. He would present it to Herod; put it on the table before him with his wine and fruit; trophies were becoming ornaments to dining tables. But Herod would have none of it; even the guests shrank from that. Hastily he pointed to the girl who still stood before him, triumph now getting the better of her, hatred becoming beyond control, eagerness to seize her prey passing all restraint. With due ceremony the negro turned to her; solemnly he bowed to her, as to one whom his master chose to honor. He held out the dish. He hoped it would not be too heavy for this delicate maiden. He hoped she would not tremble at the sight of blood and let it fall. A fall of such a thing upon the floor would be ill-omened.
But he need not fear. She did not tremble. Eagerly she seized the dish resting it on both her delicate arms; to her breast she pressed it for security. She now forgot her manners; Herod and his party could for the moment be ignored. Glaring at her treasure she turned and rushed out of the room; the servants shrank aside as she passed, lest blood should drip upon them.
“And he beheaded him in prison. And his head was brought in a dish and it was given to the damsel. And she brought it
And gave it to her mother.”
There we may leave the two gloating over their victory; when woman hates she ceases to be human. Let us close the story as the Evangelist closes it: “Which his disciples hearing, came and took his body and buried it in a tomb and came and told Jesus.”