The Passion of St. John the Baptist

Earlier this summer, Desert Bread paid homage to the birth of St. John the Baptist. Today’s post honors his passion.

There is no work of art depicting John the Baptist that is more compelling than today’s featured art by Caravaggio, and Peter Gabriel’s “Washing of the Water” is a profoundly fitting song for today’s theme.

The featured poem is one of my favorites that I have ever written and it imagines how Salome, whose dark request sentenced the Baptist to death, might have been transformed by John’s death the way others were transformed by his life.

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Peter Gabriel - Washing Of The Water + lyrics

Salome with the Head of John the baptist - Caravaggio
Salome with the Head of John the baptist – Caravaggio

Salome’s Crown for John

“But at a birthday celebration for Herod, the daughter of Herodias performed a dance before the guests and delighted Herod so much that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.’” (MT 14:6-8)

I’ve come to hate the way I danced. My arms
swaying to drum-beats were my call to war—
the way I challenged any woman’s charms
and made a man see only me, want more
than what I showed through subtle turns of cloth—
until the more I moved, the more he swore
he’d have me—pin my body like a moth
against the floor. I’ve come to hate the chore
of teasing lust from strangers. There’s a font
inside me where once there was just a door
I’d closed—though others thought it open. Want
can do that sort of thing—But I abhor
what I have done. I dammed the water’s source.
I used the passion of my limbs as force.

I used the passion of my limbs as force—
My mother nodded—but I heard the wails
when I asked for her wish. Then shame—Remorse
became the fabric of my seven veils.
I close my eyes and see the prophet’s head
upon the platter, mouth severed from breath—
If I got what I asked for first, instead,
I’d have a bracelet, not a plate of death.
Why did I ask for it? Why use my lips
as trumpets sounding battle on one life?
I doubted that mere thrusting of my hips
could really raise or lower Herod’s knife;
but wanted to find out if it were true
my motions could discomfit and subdue.

My motions could discomfit and subdue
a man between the sheets, I knew. I’d won
a heart or ten, never a skull. Taboo—
to mention all the parts I’ve claimed. I’m done
dancing for hearts and heads, know what the brag
has cost. The night they served my severed wish,
I had just bathed. They took it from a bag—
held by the hair and placed it on a dish
beside my bed where just the night before
ripe pomegranates dropped their clotted seeds.
And I remembered their dark stains, the gore
of sweetness on my fingers. Those red beads
were what I saw when I first glimpsed the blood
staining the prophet’s mouth—each speck, a bud.

Staining the prophet’s mouth, each speck a bud—
I had imagined they would clean him first.
I told the guards to smooth away the blood
staining his beard. Trying to wash, submerse,
undo my wrong, I raised my still-wet sponge
to one of them, asked him to wipe the brow
of the Baptist. He laughed. I rose and plunged
my robe in water, rushed to disavow
my crime, reverse the stains. I tended him
with what I could. But his still-open eyes
were beautiful; their light had not yet dimmed.
I thought he had a lovely face—rough, wise,
and strong. His hair was gleaming, face was browned
and had a look of mercy I’d not found.

He had a look of mercy I’d not found
in any man before. Not him, the brute—
the war-monger. This head—beautiful, round—
the coin I’d won—was not a cut bud. Shoot
of new life, though severed, I wish I’d known
him when he lived; then I might have lived, too.
I would have followed John. He would have shown
me uses for my dance. The old tattoo
of sorrow on my skin he would have drowned
within the Jordan. Naked, then reborn,
I would have given him myself, and crowned
him as my king. Why then was I the thorn?
I called to God to come remove the tray—
to make him whole again, take him away.

To make him whole again, take him away
from me. This was my prayer the night I’d danced
for death. I asked that this prophet of day—
of light, sent to his end by one entranced—
could somehow be put back together. But
my plea not yet completed, there he stood
before me. Herod. Licked his lips, then shut
the door. Dance for me, Salome, you’re good—
Why do you shake your head, refuse a king?
I gave you what you wanted, it’s your turn.
Why didn’t you ask for a dress, a ring?
You are a strange one. Even so, I burn
for you. And what you will not give, I’ll take.
Where is your power now? Look how you shake.

Where is your power now? Look how you shake,
I said to Herod as he told me, Dance. You
were not the first man who came here to take
me for himself. I’m owned first by a Jew,
a desert wanderer, a homeless priest.
But Herod laughed, He’s dead, and now you fall
in love with what you danced to kill? At least
explain this—how his head holds you in thrall.

I answered: Some of his blood smeared on me
as I was tending him. Now there’s a font
inside me where was once an aimless sea.
I was baptized tonight, and now I want
to love what I have killed, sent to the knife.
I dance for what I lost. I dance for life.