I was baptized, after the manner, it is said, of John, him who was executed by Romans, my countrymen. Why kill him? Perhaps he was too aspiring, or attracting looks as if so, or overly loud in that kind of speech where different ears hear of differing glory roads to tread, where argument arises as to what is the righteous, and what the sinful, of those journeys of our lives and deaths.
We attend earnestly to such news, to claims, promises. Convictions. We are eager to learn the truth of these journeys, their nature, meanings, and ends? Some upon hearing the news find it good and believing is moved to earnestness in extreme, fulfillment of hopes and immersion in passion, relief, joy, ecstasy in the sublime. They find love and purification or new power through which to live.
Others understanding they are lost, condemned, are bitter, bitter as the plant called wormwood, bitter as soot and as black within. Perhaps they are already, or, in further gross distortion, become evil. Out of them murder may come, or other intended bad. One says, “may come” for we do not know. Ah, who can rightly forecast one person’s journey, its outcomes? Or a faith’s, a people’s, even the fate of empires?
Yet, many now do proclaim right roads, events to occur on the journey, where the end of each, thus all roads will be. They do so loudly, sometimes each again differently and to his own liking, or out of his own fear. There are also portents and oracles, but only some of these are wells deep in wisdom and second sight. Only a few are true to godly knowings. There are many claims, truth is there, but it can be concealed behind clouds of others’ making. Only those blessed might be sure.
Respecting the fate of the baptizer, that concluded well before I was born, at a time when grievous differences as to true paths and true outcomes did play their killing part. The Romans, my fellows, urged and used by local priests, some devious, weighing fates with measured wisdom and upon due deliberation, did reach conclusions. Not then or now does one assure the absence of bias, for there are abiding memories of miserable misrule, as was the case in the anti-Semite, execrably bungling, Pontius Pilate. It is not Rome’s intent, idealized, to allow law’s distortion, Syria’s governing Vitellius, a good man, later become emperor, removed the vermin Pilate in disgust.
Who condemned the baptizer? Unknown. The officials so employed, allow perhaps several seriously consulting on the matter, were a rung on the great and ruling ladder of Roman law and power. Formal magistracy in such affairs is always required, albeit here it would be one of lesser status occupying a lower rung, for the baptizer was but a country prophet initiating Jews into personal and universal, not tribal, purity This, according to an initiate’s faith, assures remaking in the eyes of God, these truer to the moral way. I ask, are there hints in this attention to persons, not the tribe, are these signposts pointing to the worth of individuals, their individual conscience which must have due regard not for tribe or empire but for the whole of mankind, all men brothers? Of course. It is a signpost showing a better path for Rome.
Rome is already a failed best civilization, for, paradoxically, being best in governing, in wars, waterways, agriculture and mechanics, where we are comprised of swords, bricks, luxuries, roads, cruelties, excellent law corrupted, vanities and distrust, and yes, best at crucifixion, in argument, legions, festivals, much commemorative statuary. We are successfully cosmopolitan. Yet to measure the sufficiency of civilizations, one needs to measure depth and internalities. There was depth in Athens, in its arts and crafts, poetry, science, philosophy, navel strategies, democracy, all of these arising out of encouraged creativity. Depth must include the considered, elaborated spiritual as well as citizens’ civic virtue, respect for the collaborative and intelligent. With these are set enduring foundation. Rome denied itself depth when we crucified Jesus.
Whoever shall kill baptizers, the baptized and the idea of expanding love, awe beyond the self, power beyond the state political, is condemned. Rome has condemned itself.
Whomever that Roman official bidden by his responsibility and power, on petition of some of the baptizer’s tribe, --the tribe of Hebrews are a paradox, being tightly knit and murderously divided--whether the petition came out of cunning or in anger, responded as seemed right. Ordered forth were the executioners. That is clear, although how the death was exactly was done differs with each story told. Because the record is unpublished baptizing John’s remains a most curious death, denying better lessons for those who would be wiser governors, or who are in sympathy as considering baptism or already transformed by it
Curious yes, but opacity can be useful to rulers, rumoured attributions can be encouraged. Possibly vengeance? Possibly a righteous tribal fideist’s assassination? The wrath of Yahweh? Or an angry kinsman father of the bride, troubled that the bride price of goats received proved sickly? Such can be an execution’s diplomatic disguise. Which is a story based on a fact is no matter. That execution was done and decisively, directly ordered or otherwise, but done and lawfully, which is the Roman way.
The books and stories affirm another history, mindful of the baptizer’s, although many such histories come later, a few of which came to my hands, among which many are already lost to the competition among stories, their tellers, and their claimed god- epiphanic heroes. As in all history, influence and accident govern what is remembered, recorded, how it is reshaped and told. Luck may play a role, the rhetor or bard’s -as story telling skill- surely will as well. The attractiveness of message and the messenger within the story, angels playing their role (our “angel” comes from the Greek for messenger and, altered, the root form, his “message”) An angel’s message is found in art and depth, in the listener’s readiness, for no angel lives a solitary life. Power shapes what is told and how, who and how many may listen safely and who does not. Hereabouts in this now of Antioch, it is the strength of rivals, the usefulness of one story over another for the sake of causes, whose pen controls the parchment. These all play a mighty role. These are a political matter, defined as who has power and to what ends it is put. Be assured, the deaths of baptizers and the course of faith, whatever invisible role is ascribed to a god, are matters political. These can also be invisible.
This faith cannot survive without two lights, one illuminating the hand of God, the other the hands of earthly power. I was asked once to be bishop and, unchristian and unready, refused. Yet I think much on the bishop’s tasks. He must shine in the light of Heaven, be faithful to its King, and yet deal directly with the Prince of this World. From the first of these flows the duty and inspiration so that he may temper the second. The bishop rejects all black arts and those who practice them who serve the fateful Prince. The bishop will require purifications since the soot of this world will otherwise settle on his hands to contaminate them. As Jesus repelled the temptations of the Devil, so must the bishop who, being much weaker, must find his strength in the Lord. In the Lord’s suffering he finds the meaning for his own. Suffering is what the other Prince imposes, along with the failures inherent in the Adam within us. These thoughts on the duty of bishops come to me more frequently now that I have progressed a further step of the Christian way. I am mindful of the invitation from Ignatius, or who spoke from within him. Should circumstance arise, I will now consider the possibility. Such a visible, noisy frog as a bishop in such a small Christian pond will not be allowed to sit quietly on his lily pad. The Peace of God surpasseth understanding, but the devices of men are understood, known to make such pond waters tumultuous. One is always beware the waiting serpent present in all pleasant gardens, who much enjoys a dinner of frog, and is guided to his meal by its croaking and splashing, Silence then is commended, as properly modest, or politic, or the necessary condition for spiritual intimacy.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter