The Beheading of the Holy and Glorious Prophet and Forerunner and Baptist John
The Church sets forth for every day of the year so many saints, so that we can be inspired by their lives, rejoice in their virtues, and take comfort in their intercession. There are countless martyrs and many holy ascetics. There are numerous hierarchs and worthy priests and deacons. There are choirs of virgins, wonderworkers, holy fools, un-mercenary healers and passion-bearers. But there is only one baptist and forerunner, and he, among all those born of woman knows no superior.
Today we celebrate the day of his beheading, or rather the surrender of his life to God's plan. We come to the date of August 29th because this is the day of dedication of the Church built by Saint Helen for his relics in Sebaste, the site of his burial. In that place his holy relics were honoured until they were disturbed by the apostate emperor Julian. But, imprisoned in that dark palace, John actually gave his life into God's hands shortly before the Jewish Passover.
And that is entirely fitting and suitable. For even at his holy death, John did not abandon his ministry of going before the Lord, preparing his way (Luke 1:76). He had leapt for joy in the womb of his mother Elizabeth at the visitation of the Saviour and the Mother of God. He entered the desert before the Lord, and told the demons to prepare to address the Only-begotten in the flesh. He preached to the people of Israel to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make his paths straight (Luke 3:4). He pointed to the Lamb of God, and made his own disciples to be apostles of the Lord. Though innocent, he was arrested and accused unjustly, a forerunner of the chosen path that the blameless Christ would follow. Now, he gave his life over to death, but this did not mark the end of his ministry! He entered into the realm of the dead, into Hades where the righteous of all ages, the patriarchs, prophets and just ones from the creation of the world were waiting to be loosed from their bondage. He walked among the dead, in the kingdom of death, crying out for all those weeping there to prepare themselves to receive the Lord God! The time of their captivity was coming to an end, soon Christ the true God would by means of the Cross enter into their condition, and lead them forth into freedom, opening the gates of paradise and carrying them to the glory of the holy Resurrection. The voice of God the Word would be heard in their midst, and the darkness of death would be illumined with the eternal Light. The psalmist words prophetically described that day: The just shall rejoice at the presence of God, they shall exult and dance for joy. Make a highway for him who rides on the clouds, rejoice in the Lord, exult in his presence. God will go forth, at the head of his people, and the heavens will melt at the presence of God. This God of ours is a God who saves, the Lord our God holds the keys of death. (from Psalm 67).
We hear the story of the beheading of the forerunner John, and shudder with shame and disbelief. How could the Saviour God allow such a terrible end to his kinsman and faithful servant? With treachery and lust, the death is plotted of one so pure and righteous? But John himself was not disturbed, nor did he question God's ways. He gave himself over to the will of God, whose plan is ever for the good to those who love him.
We fast today, as if to honour the Forerunner who fasted always. We fast today, to separate ourselves from the passions that were so cruelly executed on the day of his death. Trumpets precede the entrance of the King into the banquet hall. Lightning precedes the thunderclap. A candle precedes the procession of the Holy Gospel. And we fast today to remind ourselves that humility precedes the gifts of God. How shall we boast? Even hours of patient vigil, even endless good deeds, even mountains of philanthropy are a pittance, amounting to nothing more than some camel hair and a leather girdle before God. It is a humbled spirit and contrite heart that is acceptable before the throne of grace. So on this feast we fast, becoming less, that God can become all. Lord, grant us the grace to humble ourselves, help us to persevere, even to the end.
Holy kinsman of the Lord, prophet, forerunner and baptist John, pray to God for us!
Written by a monk of the Byzantine Catholic Church.
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