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Do Not Forget the Dead

The Rev. Patrick Ward
October 18, 2018

One of the pleasures of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the welter of objects its founder placed in her own quirky way.  Often when I’m there, I find myself transfixed by some work that I stumbled on by chance. One afternoon last month it was an altarpiece from 1507, carved in limestone by an anonymous artist in France and tucked off to the side in a third-floor hallway.  You can have a close look at it here:  https://www.gardnermuseum.org/experience/collection/12006


From left to right the carvings show us two “greatest hits” from Christian iconography (the baptism of Jesus by John, the annunciation to Mary) and then a hideous scene perhaps less familiar: the beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6). The artist in this third frame depicts the moment when a soldier of Herod’s guard, on order from the king, has just executed the Baptist for his unstinting criticism of the regime. The soldier proffers the head on a platter to Herod’s new stepdaughter while John’s corpse lies at their feet and Herod and his new wife Herodias feast on a balcony above.  “Do not forget the dead” is inscribed along the base of the altarpiece. Limestone is fragile, and the head of the muscular executioner has been lost to time. Perhaps Gardner saw a sweet irony in that damage.


News this week of the suspected murder in Istanbul of Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor  Jamal Khashoggi has brought the altarpiece back to mind for obvious reasons.  Christian faith, wrote Thomas Merton once, is a matter of struggle and questioning before it is a matter of certitude and peace. Khashoggi was not a Christian, but I am. So I “read” accounts of his execution this week as I “read” Mark 6 and as I “read” the 1507 altarpiece.


Struggling against and questioning tyranny is an original component of Christian identity. For many throughout the ages, such as the martyred and newly canonized Oscar Romero, this struggle has had hideous consequences while at the same time hastening the downfall of despotic regimes. 


If we forget these dead, if we forget the struggling and the questioning, we also forget that weekly Eucharist must be for us at least in part what it was to 19th century Anglican priest and reformer Stewart Headlam, a sort of “weekly meeting of rebels” against a violent and dehumanizing world order. “All our prayer, all our worship,” writes author and spiritual director Kenneth Leech, “is within the struggle of the suffering Lamb of God, faced with the destructive forces of the old world. We pray with our vision of the coming kingdom of justice, love and peace before us.”


See you in church,





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