Mark 6:14-29 and Psalm 42
Our Gospel passage today is one of those in the Bible that should have an R-rating for violence and bloody images. Perhaps we have heard the story too many times so that we have got used to it, but it is one of terrible and gruesome violence. The image of John the Baptist being beheaded and his head being presented to Herodias on a platter is what we would call today an example of gratuitous violence.
It reveals the depravity of what human beings are capable of.
Having someone killed is the stuff of mafia bosses, but having a person’s head presented on a platter is barbaric and grotesque.
The passage raises important questions though. It raises questions about Divine protection and suggests faith is not a guarantee of Divine protection.
It is a difficult thing to hear. We all want God to keep us safe, but the truth is that faith is not a guarantee that bad things wont happen to us. Faith can be an enormous gift in the midst of struggle, but it is not an insurance policy that life will go smoothly. John the Baptist’s faith does not save him from the treachery of Herodias. In fact in this passage, it is John’s faith that gets him into trouble.
On the trip home from South Africa I was reading a book by a Dutch Jewish woman, Etty Hillesum, a woman of deep faith and openness to God, who came to a very similar conclusion living in Nazi occupied Holland.
Etty Hillesum grew up in what she describes as a very chaotic home with no religious upbringing of any significance. Her parents were not bad people, but they had their own emotional issues and their marriage was never a happy and harmonious one. Her two brothers grew up with quite serious emotional and psychological struggles.
In her diaries she speaks of her own emotional life that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her with darkness.
In her 20’s Etty began a therapeatic relationship with Julius Spier a leading psychologist..
Through his work and influence she was able to process a lot of the emotional baggage that she carried with her from her upbringing. Through his influence, she also began a profound spiritual journey that more and more became the focus of her life. Upon his suggestion, she began a regular practice of sitting in silence everyday… a practice of listening deeply to the silence. A practice she called ‘hearkening’.
In this practice of silent listening or hearkening, she became aware of a Presence and a peace within herself that was capable of holding and containing the inner chaos that she had often felt might overwhelm her.
Over-time, as someone who had not been in anyway religious, Etty began to refer to this Presence and Peace, by the name God.
Through the further influence of Spiers, Etty also began to read the New Testament and the Psalms, having a special love for the Gospel of Matthew and the person of Jesus.
Over time, as Etty grew in this newfound experience and faith in God, for reason’s she did not know, and to her own embarrassment, Etty began a practice of kneeling on the rough straw mat in her bathroom where no-one else could see her.
For quite some time, in her journals, this practice of kneeling remained an embarrassment to her. She had grown up as strong and independent and this practice of kneeling was something new and vulnerable, something even more intimate she wrote than the intimate relationships she had been in.
But as she knelt in silence in this way, she felt a deepening experience of the Presence within that she had begun to refer to as God. She felt a deepening sense of reverence for the sacredness of life. She began to experience a growing love in her heart for people, even strangers that she met.
It was about this time that Nazi persecution of the Jewish community began to escalate. Life became more and more restricted. Already, some were being shipped off to concentration camps.
The tighter and tighter the noose of Nazi occupation grew, the more Etty felt moved to kneel in silence and open herself to the quiet Presence of God that she had discovered within.
While some Jews were still hoping that Western powers would intervene and save them from destruction under the Nazi’s, Etty Hillesum realised that there was an inevitability about their looming destruction under Nazi control. She realised that not even God was able to save them from what was going to happen to them.
Etty turned the idea of God’s protection on its head. Rather than believing that God would save and protect her from her fate, Etty wrote of how she, and all people needed to guard and protect this silent Presence of God that she had discovered in the depth of her heart for she realised how easily it could be lost or covered over with hatred and anger. It was she who needed to guard and protect this Presence rather than God protecting her from what was to come.
While many of her fellow Jews understandably began to express their hatred towards the German Nazi’s, and though at times she was tempted to do likewise, this Presence of God which she had discovered within, prevented her from doing so and she found that inexplicably there was a love inside of her, even for their Nazi captors. Writing in the concentration camp on the theme of hatred Etty Hillesum wrote: “It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.”
It was in 1942 that Etty was taken off to the concentration camps. There in the camps she continued to read the Gospel of Matthew and find time to kneel in silence. She continued to guard and protect this fragile Presence of God within her, even though she knew that this God would not save her from the fate that was to come.
Etty Hillesim died in a gas chamber in Poland on 30 November 1943. Those who remembered her from the concentration camp said that she was a radiant presence in the midst of the daily suffering and struggle in the camp.
Although God had not saved her from her fate, she had discovered a Presence within that was more precious even than life itself and that not even death could take from her.