Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, the Church commemorates the holy glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptizer of our Lord. We know of John because of Jesus Christ, just as we know of the most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary because of her Son. They are forever inextricably linked with our Lord, and iconographically they ever point us or direct us to Jesus Christ – a ministry specifically entrusted to the Baptist and Forerunner of our Lord. The ministry of John is foretold by the Prophets before him. He is the last great Prophet of Israel, standing in a long and venerable line of Prophets before him. He is among them and he is one of them, but by the providential will of God he stands head and shoulders above them like Saul of old (Mt. 11:7-19). He spans the Old and New Covenants, linking the two together in the one Person of Jesus Christ. When asked if he were the Christ, the Messiah long prophesied and awaited, he humbly declined, opting rather to be known as the lone voice crying out in the wilderness, calling all souls to return to the ways of the Lord (Jn. 1:19-28). He clearly sees his ministry as one of preparation, a kind of pummeling of the shoreline and its fortifications with his powerful message of,
“’Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! . . . Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, . . . [E]ven now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’” He baptizes with the water of repentance, but the One coming after him, the One Who is greater than him because He was before him, this One brings fire with Him and He will “’thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’” (Mt. 3:1-12; Jn. 1:15, 30).
As a child, John had escaped the insane king’s sword when, out of fear and envy at the Birth of the Newborn King as told to him by the Magi, Herod, in a fit of irrational rage like Pharaoh of Egypt, ordered the wholesale abortion of the Holy Innocents – male children two years of age and younger (Mt. 2:1-18). Tradition has it that the young Forerunner was preserved by the providence of God when his mother fled with him out into the desert while his father, the old priest Zacharias, was martyred because he refused to divulge their location. Another tradition says that Elizabeth, during their flight, prayed and a rock miraculously opened up to receive them and concealed them from the king’s demonic madness.
But, now, having fulfilled his mission and ministry, John can no longer outrun old Herod’s sword. Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, will finish what his wicked father had started in Bethlehem and its environs. Perhaps this story of the beheading of the Baptist might be a case study in the spiritual depravity and poverty of sin in the world and in our lives? What the world in its blindness thinks is life, is, in all actuality, death. What the world drinks as a luscious elixir, in reality, is a deadly poison. What sin, death, and the devil call “sweet,” God calls bitter.
St. Paul, another one of those saints who was beheaded for the sake of Jesus Christ, speaks of this in his opening chapters of Romans. He writes:
For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. . . . [A]lthough they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were [they] thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, . . . Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, . . . who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, . . . For this reason God gave them up to vile passions (Rm. 1:18-27).
The Apostle then goes on to list a host of the barren fruit of sin, culminating with this chilling warning,
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; . . . who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them (Rm. 1:28-32).
God bears with us in His mercy and compassion, but there comes a point when sinners fail to heed the divine call to repentance that this same God Who loves mankind will allow us to experience and “enjoy” the dregs of sin we crave! He will allow us to drink the toxic chalice we believe in our blindness to be, in fact, sweet and life-giving, but is full of death. He will allow us to “taste and see” for ourselves all the time opening to us the gates of repentance so that we might enter and live. For the Lord does not desire the death of the ungodly, Sacred Scripture assures us (Ek. 33:11). He does not take pleasure or delight in the death of the wicked by no stretch of the imagination (Ek. 18:23). Indeed, the Almighty desires “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm. 2:4); “that all should come to repentance” (2 Pe. 3:1-11). This is precisely why God sends His Prophets, sends His angels, sends His Apostles and preachers and evangelists and catechists. This is exactly why God sent forth His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, into the world: to save us sinners who prefer darkness to light, death to life – not to condemn the world, but to save the world through Jesus Christ our Lord (Jn. 3:13-21).
Sadly, however, and most tragically – moreso for Herod and Herodias and Salome, Herodias’ daughter – they loved darkness more than the light, death more than life. They preferred the temporal pleasures and passions of Egypt rather than the eternal reward and beatific blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven (Hb. 11:23-27). Despite being attracted to John the Prophet and his message; despite knowing full well the Law of God, Herod nonetheless chose willfully to flout it. He fears John, but not enough to repent – to do an about face and amend his ways. Herod fears his illicit wife more than he fears God. And Herodias? The Gospel tells us she was embittered to the core of her heart against the Prophet who had denounced her marital state. Sin has a way of deadening our hearts over time, as we heard St. Paul bear witness to in Romans. Sin leads us to inexplicable insanity. We see the insanity growing every day in our world as the world buys more and more and more into the darkness of utilitarianism and transgenderism of the sexual revolution. Following the science is the mantra for pandemics, so it seems, but not for biology.
There is a craziness afoot that no one but the Church seems to be able to see and to speak to. If we follow the science of the Prophets, as here in John’s case, there will be a price to pay. The Church, however, is under the same grace and providence as the Prophets of God and His Apostles, confessors, and martyrs. John does not waver one iota because he knows God and he is confident by faith in God’s calling, in God’s providence. He is like Elijah, the prophet’s prophet, who also confronted the stupidity of sin found in Jezebel, Herodias’ counterpart in the Old Testament who so sold herself to sin that she spewed vitriol for Elijah just as Herodias did for John (3 Kg. [1 Kg.] 19:1-20:29). These two women, and their respective husbands, share far too much in common, unfortunately. How is it possible for the world to become so outraged over what God has to say? John speaks the truth and Herod balks while Herodias plots John’s death. What is it Herodias, what is it Herod that humility and repentance cannot repair and heal in your heart? Why do you persist in your defiance of God and His ways? Why do you insist that darkness is light, and the bitter is sweet? Why do you fancy yourselves intelligent and expert in your own eyes, casting a look of disdain upon the Prophet of God (Is. 5:18-23)? Why do you resist the eternal God like Pharaoh of old?
Sin makes us stupid. And, as Fr. John was wont to say, “God doesn’t fix stupid.” It deprives us of seeing the wisdom of God. Herod is inebriated . . . with the wine of his own passions. Drunk. Intoxicated. While Herodias is trapped by her own embittered and hardened heart, filled with pride and arrogance. She, too, is intoxicated, but it’s with the blood of the Prophet. Who is John to tell her that her marriage is illicit according to the command of God? She’ll show him a thing or two.
But, the truth of the matter is, John sitting in prison, ever awaiting the sword, is far more free in his soul and his life than those three diabolical souls of Herod, Herodias, and Salome, bound by the fetters of sin, death, and the devil, sealed in pitch black. John’s light burns and will not be concealed even though he himself is not the Light, but has come to testify to the Light, so that all might believe and be set free (Jn. 1:6-13). God’s Word, God’s Prophets can never be silenced, even by beheading them! Who is stronger? Who is braver? Who is more courageous? Herod and Herodias are under judgment regardless of silencing the Baptizer and Forerunner of the Saviour. They are under judgment until such time as they repent and return to the Lord. And, as the Tradition knows, that, sadly, did not happen. The unrepentant couple were deposed and died in exile while the dancing daughter met an equally gruesome death as the one she imposed upon St. John.
What is it that keeps someone like John in his circumstances strong and unwavering, that infuses in him the strength of courage to speak and to act – the very things Herod, in all of his kingly power, failed to do? The Orthodox Synaxarion says that the Baptizer and Forerunner of our Lord “unceasingly meditated on the Word of God and saw everything in the world as secondary in the light of the keeping of the divine Law, of which his life was the perfect realization.” St. John meditated unceasingly on the Word of God and, in so doing, he viewed everything in this old world as secondary. That’s because only in God’s Light do we – can we – see light (Ps. 35 :9). The words of another great Prophet bear repeating: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee. Trust ye in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God is everlasting strength” (Is. 26:3-4).
Brethren, there is nothing in this story – indeed, nothing in this world – that cannot be cured by a healthy dose of the fear of God and repentance. The insanity of sin in our lives is remedied only by humility, repentance, and amendment of living. For Jesus Christ has broken the chains of sin, trampled down death by death, and defeated the devil (Ac. 13:25-33). This is what the Baptist and Forerunner pointed to both in this world and in the next when, as the Church sings, “The glorious beheading of the Forerunner became an act of divine dispensation, for he preached to those in Hades the coming of the Saviour . . . .” (Feast Kontakion).
Beloved, let us heed the Word of God. Let us see that everything in this old world is secondary to the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And, let us rest confident in the providence of God.
Through the prayers of the holy glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist, John, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
Is. 40:1-5; 41:17-18; 45:8; 48:20-21; 54:1
Ma. 3:1-3, 5-7, 12, 18; 4:4-6
WS 4:7, 16-17, 19-20; 5:1-7