Saint Agatha. It's interesting that when we see her story we find that the Church has chosen two readings about two very different Kings, contrasting them as book ends. What do Kings have to do with this amazing woman from the mid 3rd century? I think that in order to find that out we have to explore a bit of both her story, and theirs.
We see in the first reading King David is being lauded as the ultimate of Kings. His Kingdom was the one where everyone had food on the table. Israel was prosperous. They were winning their wars. Things were going so well in his time that he didn't even bother to go out and fight, just letting his commanders do it for him. He was indeed the kind of King the people wanted when they demanded God give them a human one. David, though, was far from perfect. David was a man who had sinned terribly . He took another mans wife in adultery and then had that man killed. David was confronted by the Prophet Nathan who used a parable to show David just how bad his sin was. Nathan did not mince words, he told David that he was the man who had done wrong.
Then we see in the second reading King Herod. Herod has successfully bartered peace with the Romans, though at a great deal of cost to the freedoms of the people. He had rebuilt the temple as well. Was a good man? Probably not, but as far as King's go he wasn't the worst. The Jewish people weren't starving to death by any means. Herod too had his problems. He had taken his brother Philip's wife as his own. Just like David, Herod was confronted by a prophet. John came to him in no uncertain terms and told him his sin.
Both kings had sinned. Both kings had taken a woman to be their wife that they should not have. Both were confronted by prophets. They both had completely different responses. King David repented of his sin, poured out his heart to God and begged forgiveness. Herod? Well he locked John up and treated him like a play thing, eventually beheading him. One turned to God, the other to the world. I think that is part of our first lesson.
Through our Baptism we are consecrated as Priest, Prophet and King, right? So if we put ourselves in the place of the Prophet in each of these pericopes we ask ourselves, are we fulfilling that role? Are we standing up to those in charge? Or are we simply trying to get by. That doesn't necessarily mean to the King or the President, but there are people all over who are in positions of authority. We as prophets are called to deliver the word of God, in season and out of season, when it's welcome and when it's not. The challenge is to do so in love. Pope Francis recently said that we cannot begin to speak about the justice(judgement) of God without first talking about his mercy. Are we living that in our role of prophet? Are we making sure to take a stand and deliver God's message to the world?
On the other hand, we have two Kings in the stories as well. How are we responding to that word when delivered to us? When the prophets in our lives come to us pointing out our mistakes are we turning to God in sorry and repentance? Or do we reject them? Are we going to be remembered like King David who constantly tried to do God's will, a man after God's own heart? Or will we be remembered as Herod? A man who lived a life of hedonism and pleasure, one who was supposed to be an example for the people, but rather did not point to God at all with his life. The King of Israel in the old testament was described as the following:
he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes,
Saint Thomas Aquinas told us there were four typical substitutes for God. Power, wealth, pleasure, and honor. Here in this one verse we see that God has declared that a King shall avoid all four of those. Power - You will not get amount of horses. Horses were a sign of military power. Wealth - the King shall avoid gathering great quantities of silver and gold. Pleasure - He shall not have a great deal of wives, but he is supposed to remain monogamous. Honor - The king is required to consistently read the laws and statues, observing them in humility to remember that all glory belongs to God.
We can learn a great deal from that. God showed us early on in Scripture that these four things were dangerous to our spiritual health. Jesus encapsulated them in the sermon on the mount when he gave us the beatitudes. The beatitudes are the antidote to those spheres of influence. So much so that Father Barron says that the beatitudes point directly to Christ on the cross.. a man with no power.. no honor ... no wealth.. no pleasure.. he in his manhood is helpless and nailed to a cross.. he though the King of glory is treated as a common, unclean criminal. The creator of the universe, he who made gold itself.. does not even have his own clothing left to boast. The inspiration for the Song of Songs is here in pain, beaten, hungry, thirsty and in pain. Yes, Christ on the cross teaches us that lesson... but that brings us to our last role, Priest.
Who is the Priest? Jesus is the High Priest, our example. Herod and his friends were asking a very powerful question... they were trying to figure out who Jesus was. They were confused by him. Some thought he was a reincarnated prophet, others simply a new one. The incarnation confronted them with that question though... Who is Jesus? What is he worth to us? What does his existence mean to us?
Saint Agnes believed so strongly that Jesus was worth dying for, that she went to her death after much torture to protect her virginity out of a promise to him. She was surely tempted to give up to those spheres herself. When they were asking her to give in and have sex? She turned down the momentary pleasure for the Kingdom of Heaven. When they threatened to kill her and tortured her? When they offered her a spouse with wealth just to give in? Oh how easy it would be to give in for the honor of being restored to our former place, not to be treated as a fugitive. Oh how tempted might that rich man been on top of it.. if I just do this... I'll live... I'll be fine... When they berated her and made fun of her.. sent her to a brothel to be abused and raped, would she have been tempted to regain her honor by just giving in? She chose the cross.. she chose death.
That's true power. That's true honor. That's true wealth! How much more pleasure can one have than to be a part of the beatific vision? We, too, are challenged to be counter cultural. Being so intent on Jesus on the cross that we go forward with that as our goal. Giving up everything else. Focusing intently on carrying our own cross, to our own Calvary. There is no resurrection with the cross.... there is no Christianity without the cross. We must become Christ in the world. As priests, prophets and kings... we are to reach out into the world.. wagging our fingers in the face of those in charge and saying this is what true Justice is. Feeding the poor, the widow, the orphan. Helping the refugee. Visiting the sick and those in prison. Being a good king who avoids wealth, power, honor and pleasure to rather provide protection, hope, and love to all those we are responsible for.. and we are responsible for everyone. Remember who asked "Am I my brothers keeper?" Finally, leading the way by pointing to Christ.. by learning who Christ is ourselves, spending time with Him and with the inspired word, and then leading others to understand who he is. That question, "Who is Jesus?"... the answer to that question has the power to change eternity for everyone you meet... But you've got to invite them into that world..
"You may be the only bible that someone ever reads."
His servant and yours,
"He must increase, I must decrease."