From the Gospel of Mark:
Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 6:27-29 (NRSV) – March 26, 2014.)
I have a hard time with the beheading thing . . . . I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about cutting someone’s head off that just appalls me.
When I was a student in Italy in 1969 (and again when I chaperoned 87 teenagers to Italy in the summer of 2000), I visited the cathedral in Siena where the head of the local medieval heroine, St. Catherine of Siena, is on display. It’s really quite creepy! Catherine wasn’t beheaded in life, however. Her head was separated from her body when the Sienese, upset that the corpse of their favorite hometown girl was in Rome, tried to steal it back. Unfortunately, they were only able to get the head and were only able to smuggle it out when the Roman guards were miraculously led to believe that the sack in which it was carried contained rose petals rather than a mummified skull.
There is a special class of saints who were martyred by beheading and are commonly depicted carrying their heads under their arms like a football in religious art. John is the first of them, but because of his importance in the Jesus story, he is not usually so represented. These saints, called the cephalophores (it means “head carriers” referring to their artistic portraits), are often said to have recited, scripture, preached, or even spoken to choose their own burial sites after decapitation. For example, St. Nicasius of Rheims att the moment of his decapitation was reciting Psalm 119. When he reached the verse “Adhaesit pavimento anima mea” (My soul cleaves to the dust, v. 25), he was executed. After his head had fallen to the ground, he spoke the rest of the verse, “vivifica me, Domine, secundum verbum tuum” (give me life according to your word).
St. John Chrysostom said of the cephalophores that the severed head of a martyr is more terrifying to the devil than when it was able to speak in life. I don’t know about that, but severed heads just present me with all sorts of problems. It presents a problem to artists, too. How do you handle the halo in a portrait of a beheaded saint? Some put the halo where the head used to be, others have the saint carrying the halo along with the head, but neither is a really adequate representation.
Anyway, I have to admit that I find very little in the way of spiritual uplift thinking about, contemplating, or viewing (in reality or in artistic depiction) the severed head of a martyr. These stories only speak to me of the depravity of human beings, which I suppose must be their point. I speak lightly of them and joke about them only because I would otherwise slip into despair. As my late mother used to say, “You have to laugh about, because otherwise you’d cry.”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.