That Touch of Autumn

Did you feel it this morning, that touch of Autumn?

Those of us in the Nation’s Capital woke up to temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s – that’s in the 12-16 degree range, for my non-American readers.  With low humidity and a crispness in the air, it was the first real sign that Fall is on the way.  Yes, it will be hot and humid later, and yes, it will be hot and humid all weekend for those of us who did not have the possibility of getting out of town this weekend for the Labor Day holiday.  However, this morning was quite the preview of coming attractions, since for me Autumn is the absolute best time of year to be in Washington.

It’s rather appropriate that this first hit of Autumn to come fell today, when the Church remembers the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  You’ll remember from the Bible how St. John was executed when Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, asked for the prophet’s head as a reward for her dancing.  Like Salome, this is the time of year when the Earth, in this part of the world, begins to drop her veils, one by one, until by Winter she is completely bare.

Now for those of you who are “Team Summer”, and who like this scrivener live in an area with distinct seasons, this is the worst of all possible worlds, I know.  You enjoy being sweaty, dirty, and sunburnt.  You enjoy being attacked by insects, or being stuck in transit/traffic for hours when the air conditioning doesn’t work.  You enjoy the chaffing of sandals or flip-flops tearing up the back of your heels, or constantly adjusting those shorts that bunch up when you sit down.  In other words, you like to suffer.

For the rest of us, deliverance is at hand.

It’s soon time for clothing where anyone can both look good and feel comfortable, not just the genetic anomalies.  Drinks can be lingered over and savored, rather than rushed down before the ice melts.  The food will be flavorful and filling and bountiful, not limited by the phrase, “It’s so hot I’m not really hungry.”

There will be celebrations to prepare, requiring far more attention than the three Summer holidays of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, which generally involve, at best, a trip to the grocery store for some burgers and buns, and not much else.  Yet as Autumn gets underway, Halloween leads to Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving leads to Advent, and Advent leads to Christmas. Many of us even get Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day thrown in for good measure, just to have some extra time off or a change of pace.

Now be assured, I’m not forgetting the importance or the significance of any of these holidays, before someone starts to complain.  Rather the simple truth is, Autumn is a time for celebration. We gather in the products of the land, and we enjoy the hard work that went into growing them, and we have very fun ways of going about doing so which do not involve the charade of pretending that we can still live out in the open air like our ancient ancestors did, so long as we have enough propane for the grill and citronella for the tiki torches.

No, give me the cold honesty of Autumn over the pretend joys of Summer any day.  The Fall reveals character. I’m looking forward to seeing the colors of the geology and chemistry of the planet, now hidden under a mask of chlorophyll.  As growing things go dormant, each leaf reveals a uniqueness belied by the uniform green, no two the same.  We see things as they are, not in uniformity but in a huge range of colors and shades of colors, everything from scarlet red to mustard yellow to deep purple.

And similarly, when we can all get out of the blazing sun and actually sit down and see each other, without the need for sunglasses or umbrellas or the like, the chill causing us to draw a little bit closer together for warmth, I believe we’ll all be the better for it.

Detail of "Salome Dancing Before Herod" by Gustave Moreau (1876) Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Detail of “Salome Dancing Before Herod” by Gustave Moreau (1876)
Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles


Consider the Ladies

We are continuing on with our series of posts relating some of the details of the events of Holy Week to wider cultural issues, so that I can speak to both my Christian and Non-Christian readers in a way which, I hope, will encourage them to do a bit more lateral or creative thinking.  Today we do as Abigail Adams once directed her husband, and consider the ladies.  The ladies always need our consideration, of course, but I would like us to reflect a little bit on what very tough things the members of the fairer sex can be, when they set their minds to it.

In St. Mark’s Passion Narrative, which you can read here, he tells us the following detail about the scene on Golgotha, where Jesus is crucified:

There were also women looking on from a distance.
Among them were Mary Magdalene,
Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome.
These women had followed him when he was in Galilee
and ministered to him.
There were also many other women
who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

Whether or not you are a Christian, this passage gives us an opportunity to think about the role of women in society more deeply, and I believe there are lessons to be learned here, for both Christian and Non-Christian alike.

It would be helpful to keep in mind that we need to view the scene described above not with modern eyes, which most of us in the Western world employ with respect to how we look at the role of women in society, but rather with the eyes of an ancient Semitic people living in the Eastern Mediterranean. In all four of the canonical Gospels, we are made very much aware by their (male) authors that when the crucial moment came, all of Jesus’ male disciples ran away after he was arrested. And yet apart from St. John, when Jesus is actually executed by gruesome, public torture, His female disciples are the ones who are there, witnessing the horror of his death.

We may not think of this now, because we have grown so accustomed to works of art or films depicting Jesus’ Death, but this kind of event was not something which these women would have been accustomed to attending or viewing. Ancient Jerusalem was not Ancient Rome: Jewish women in Israel would not have gone to an arena to watch men and beasts tear each other to pieces or to see men executed for entertainment, as some of their pagan sisters might have done in Italy. And yet here these Jewish women are, unknowingly about to become the first Christians in a few days’ time, watching every drop of blood fall and being unable to do anything but stand nearby and weep, as the only support they can offer to Jesus and to each other.

It is interesting to note the presence of a disciple named “Salome” at the Crucifixion. Traditionally, she has been identified as the wife of Zebedee, and the mother of St. James and St. John. However when I was listening to the reading of St. Mark’s Passion this past Sunday, I could not help but pose myself the hypothetical question, unsupported as it is by any evidence whatsoever: what if she were the same, infamous Salome from earlier in St. Mark’s Gospel?

For those unfamiliar with the story of Salome and The Baptist, St. Mark tells us:

Herodias’ own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl, “Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her, “I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request, “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.

As a caveat, I should point out that St. Mark does not use the name “Salome” in his Gospel, it is identified elswhere; and the name itself was not uncommon in Judea at the time of Christ. For example, besides the aforementioned disciple and princess, we know that there was a pre-Roman Jewish Queen of that name, who was the last independent female ruler of Judea. In addition, the sister of King Herod the Great, who ruled Judea at the time Jesus was born, was also named Salome, and that same Herod had a daughter whom he named for his sister.

Yet imagine if Salome, the girl who basically tried to seduce her stepfather on her mother’s orders, and who received a decapitated head which she herself brought to her mother, had undergone a conversion? What if she had decided to leave the hedonistic, perverted, and luxurious life she was being brought up in, to try to make amends for her part in the death of St. John the Baptist? What if she had become a follower of Christ, and a supporter of His ministry?

I do not want to delve too deeply into this sort of speculation.  However it is interesting to consider the possibility that if Salome had guts enough to carry about a human head on a platter in the service of evil, she probably would have had the guts to stand at the foot of the Cross and pity Jesus, and provide comfort to His Mother, in the service of good.  For women, in case you were not aware of the fact, are made of very tough stuff indeed.

Another woman whom St. Mark describes at the Crucifixion alongside Salome, i.e. The Magdalen, we already thought a bit about on Monday.  However, going back to her role for a moment, whenever I think of her I cannot help but remember the fictional exchange which takes place in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, “Jesus of Nazareth” when, after the Resurrection, Anne Bancroft, playing the role of Mary of Magdala, comes to tell the Apostles that Christ has risen from the dead and that she has seen Him.  They ignore her, and tell her that she is having a woman’s fantasy.  Bancroft in her inimitable way lashes back, “A fantasy? Was His DEATH a fantasy?” – pointing out that she was there for Jesus, along with the other women, and Simon Peter and the others were not.

Whenever contemporary society tries to redefine the nature of male and female, common sense speaks up and tells us that certain natural differences remain between the sexes.  A disordered attempt to try to re-engineer human nature does none of us any good for, paradoxically, it denies human nature in the process.  History has shown us that women can be as resolute as men, and on occasions such as that described by St. Mark even more so, when it comes down to making difficult decisions or facing unpleasant circumstances.  There is no need for them to try to behave like men, when they can behave as themselves.

Therefore rather than try to make women into something they are not, we are better-served by remembering that as our fellow human beings, women ought to serve as a reminder to us men that oftentimes it is they, rather than we, who have repeatedly shown that they are capable of making the kind of tough decisions which many of their brethren would shrink from.  This should not be misinterpreted as a statement that women are superior to men, but rather taken for what it is: a recognition that sometimes it is the case that they go through things which many men would find incapable of even attempting.  St. Mark clearly recognizes this, just as he admitted in his humility that he had been stripped naked in his attempt to follow Jesus, and had failed.

Even if in the end, we speak here of two Salomes, rather than a single individual, I do not think that any reasonable, intelligent member of either sex would deny the fact that whoever this Salome at the foot of the Cross was, she proved herself to be a far better friend to Jesus than the men whom he kept closest to him during His preaching and teaching.

Detail from “The Crucifixion” by Andrea Mantegna (1457-1459)
The Louvre, Paris