On August 29th, the Orthodox Church commemorates a very solemn event: the Beheading of the Prophet and Forerunner, John the Baptist. From the womb, John the Baptist bore witness to Christ. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:40).
After John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, we hear little about him until he is imprisoned by Herod. Once Jesus began His ministry, the disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew and John became Jesus’ Apostles. In essence, John’s ministry is complete once Jesus begins His. For John said: He must increase, but I must decrease (Jn 3:30).
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark have the narrative of the Beheading of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas who was the son of Herod the Great, imprisoned John for saying: it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife (Mk 6:18). Herod Antipas took his brother Philip’s wife Herodias as his mistress.
The Baptist rebuked Herod for his actions, yet, Herod, feared John, knowing that he was just and a holy man, and he protected him (ibid, 20). He respected John for who he was. However, Herodias had contempt for John and sought an opportunity to have him executed.
The opportunity came for Herodias to have John executed when Herod gave a feast for his birthday. Herod wanted Herodias’ daughter, Salome, to dance for him, promising her up to half his kingdom. So, Salome did dance for Herod but then Herodias told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod was apprehensive about this, but did not want to look foolish among his guests. So, he gave the order for John to be beheaded.
Tradition has it, that even when his head was severed off, John still rebuked Herod one last time for his actions. This was John’s purpose in his ministry, to prepare the people for Christ’s teachings; for them to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
The Forerunner’s ministry did not end at his death. In Hades, he preached about Jesus’ earthly ministry and His Resurrection. He was preparing the departed for their redemption by Christ who would soon descend into Hades and destroy death by death.
Herod did not want to execute John. And the king was exceedingly sorry, yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her (Mk 6:26). Likewise, Pontius Pilate did not want to crucify Jesus. In both cases it was external pressures. For Herod, it was his mistress Herodias and for Pontius Pilate it was the chief priests and elders and the multitudes they persuaded. When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.” And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children. “Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified (Mt, 27:24-26).
As the Prophet Isaiah foretold, John is: the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Is 40:3-5). John rebuked Herod not to condemn him but bring him to repentance.
It is interesting to note that Herod Antipas feared John the Baptist so much that he even thought he was risen from the dead. At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus and said to his servants, “this is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him (Mt 14: 1-2).” Herod actually believed that Jesus was John risen from the dead.
Out of his pride and hardness of heart, Herod imprisoned John. Yet, he still had respect for John and feared him. It was his mistress, Herodias, who had ill-will towards John and out of her pride wanted him put to death for speaking the truth. This is why pride is the worst sin, because it is the root of all sin. Lucifer, i.e. Satan committed one sin: pride. He wanted to be equal to God. Similarly, Herod and Pontius Pilate, although at first reluctant, ultimately ordered their respective executions out of pride. This is a lesson for us all, how serious of a sin pride is. The antidote of pride is course humility.
The Prophet from a Prophet, who became greater than the Prophets, who was sanctified from his mother's womb for the service of the Lord, had his head struck off today by a lawless king; and both before his execution and after it clearly rebuking the maiden who danced licentiously, he put the regiment of sin to shame. And so we cry out: Baptist John, as you have freedom to speak, intercede insistently for our souls (Festal Aposticha).
The Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist is a day of strict fast to honor the greatest prophet born of women. His death was tragic but bore witness to the teachings of Christ. He is indeed among the martyrs of Christ.
What shall we call you, Prophet? Angel, apostle, martyr: Angel, for you have spent your life like those who have no body. Apostle, for you have taught the nations, and martyr, for your head has been cut off for the sake of Christ. Pray to Him then that our souls may be granted great mercy (Lity of Festal Vespers).
After his beheading, the disciples of John acquired his body and buried him. When Salome was given John’s head, she gave it to her mother who hid it in an unclean place. It was found on three different occasions over a span of several centuries. The First and Second Finding is celebrated on February 24th and the Third Finding is celebrated on May 25th.
The memory of the just is observed with hymns of praise; for you suffices the testimony of the Lord, O Forerunner. You have proved to be truly more venerable than the Prophets, since you were granted to baptize in the river the One whom they proclaimed. Therefore, when for the truth you had contested, rejoicing, to those in Hades you preached the Gospel, that God was manifested in the flesh, and takes away the sin of the world, and grants to us the great mercy (Festal Apolytikion).
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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