Tucked into the green foothills of the snow-capped Pyrenees mountains, not far from the mid-point of France’s long southern border with Spain, lies the sleepy village of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. Oddly, this tiny hamlet boasts a cathedral for its not more than three hundred souls.
Cathédrale Saint Marie is built on the high point of the village, a knoll which pushes up just beyond 500 metres above sea level and, as with all cathedrals of small domains, its spire, squat and unimpressive as it is, points to more than just the heavens. It points to history. For Saint-Bertrand was not always the name of this town and the cathedral precinct was not always devoted to prayer. In 72 BC the Roman general Pompey, eager to get home to Rome after a campaign in Spain, passed this way and appreciating the strategic placement of the knoll to guard the Aral valley and the passes over the mountains to the south, established a fortress here, Lugdunum Convenarum, a Roman colony which in its heyday would become a city of over 30,000 inhabitants.
It was here in 39 CE, roughly a hundred years after the founding of the settlement, that an aging couple arrived with their small household, weary from a journey of over 2000 kilometres by sea and by foot, political refugees from a far away land, forced into exile by the personal order of none other than Emperor Caligula himself. The man was in his 60’s at least, the woman perhaps not quite his age. Long ago when they were younger they had met in Rome while both traveling on other business and had fallen in love, agreeing to divorce their spouses and make a new life together. Through the years and many adventures their passion for each other endured: she, by Caligula’s grace, could have remained in their far away home on the pleasant shores of the Sea of Galilee, but instead she chose to be exiled with her husband, and eventually to die in a foreign land, in Lugdunum Convenarum.
I wonder how the old man felt as he presented their papers to the commander of this wind-swept outpost of the empire, knowing as he did that many such soldiers had once taken their orders from him, that he had once governed entire provinces in the name of Ceasar. What did they talk about as they sat by the fire in their modest hired home, this man and this woman, as their initial relief at having found a safe haven gave way to the inevitable grief and introspection at all that they had lost? And as the years passed and death approached, did they ever wonder about what might have been? Did they pine for the life they once had? Or perhaps the opposite: having been forced out of the limelight and the pressure of life in a political hotbed, they unexpectedly found peace in the uneventful hills of the Pyrenees.
I wonder. Did they ever talk about that crazy night in Galilee, his birthday, when they all got seriously drunk, Salome danced, and they ended up murdering the local holy man, his head hilariously presented on a silver platter? Or was that merely a passing hangover, the morning after the night before, the untidy but forgettable consequence of occasionally drinking a bit too deeply from the chalice of power in the perverse world of Roman Palestine?
That holy man was nothing, an obnoxious meddler, spewing his venom, questioning the legitimacy of their marriage, stirring up the people to ill sentiment towards them, calling the poor masses to turn their hearts to God, calling for justice and the reign of God, whatever that means. What nonsense. What a nuisance. Yes, yes, dear, we shouldn’t have lost our heads that evening, but really, it was good to be rid of him none-the-less.
Well, “be rid of him”. What is it about these people? No sooner was he dead and buried when, for all intents and purposes, he was back again, this time in the form of a man from Nazareth, another self-proclaimed prophet, a relative even of the first, an itinerate rabble-rouser traveling the countryside whipping the people up with dangerous expectations for change. We saw him too, briefly, just before Pilate sent him to the cross. Thank goodness Pilate took care of that one. Spooky, he was.
And so they went, Herod Antipas and Herodius, to their unmarked graves in Lugdunum Convenarum, their story never told. I believe, gentle reader, this is the first time you have ever heard it.
And the two insignificant holy men? I know you have heard their tale. You know their names. And their message lives on throughout the world in the lives of millions.