|La Decollazione di San Giovanni Battista, Caravaggio, 1608|
Still in the dark, I just stared at the painting’s stark violence and drama. Two men, presumably servants, gawk at the gory spectacle from a nearby window. Herodias holds her head in shock; Salome bends to scoop up the Baptizer’s severed head in her charger, as the executioner finishes his grisly work with a dagger.
In this gruesome display commissioned by the Order of St. John, the Knights Hosptialler, and completed by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1608, I saw the barbarity of the present. Wars, natural disasters, ignorant violence; my mind could not stop gazing at the blood gushing out of St. John’s passive neck, much as it happened last week to a fellow New Englander, James Foley, whose funeral Mass was held Sunday at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester, New Hampshire.
There is no moral to my story, no pithy call to love one another. We know what we are supposed to do. There is no reason for this kind of barbarity in this or any century. There is no quick fix, political plan or ideology that will save us from the ultimate cruelty that lurks in the blinded hearts of men and women from here to Timbuktu.
If materialism denigrates those who covet as well as those who suffer deprivation, then bringing our half-blind judgment to bear on those we consider infidels to the gods of our hackneyed abstractions leaves both the heretic and the prophet pale and bleeding on Salome’s kitchen floor. What difference does guilt or innocence make when we already have all the answers? What god do we worship whose image we so easily defile with a stroke of our pitiless steel?
Some of my friends and colleagues probably wonder why I continue to cherish the corpus on the Crucifix. Why celebrate the death of Christ and not his glorious resurrection or Gnostic Transfiguration into a Being of Light? He prevailed, after all. I answer this way: Look at this painting closely and examine your heart. The Passion of John, like the Passion of his cousin, is a mark of our suffering and death as human beings, but it is also a rite of passage to the realm of liberation.
It is important for me to remember that my God walked this earth; he could taste the fish that he caught in Galilee and the wine that he and his mother drank together at Cana. My God could feel the blade of an assassin’s knife rip through the delicate flesh of his neck out there in the desert last week. He senses the fear and agony of poverty right here in Boston, and that of the children of Gaza, Israel, Syria and Iraq. As long as there is a human alive who is willing to judge and execute another person for his or her version of the truth, I will kiss the body of Christ on that horrific instrument of his torture and death, which we call the Tree of Life.