A Cautionary Tale: The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner

Readings for the Fast-day:
Mark 6:14-30; Acts 13:25-33
Psalm 2:7; 10-12; Malachi 4:4-6

This Saturday is a strict fast. When we remember the beheading of John the Forerunner we are also remembering the dark side of reality, and the sober element of our faith. Clearly, we would prefer to celebrate the resurrection and the glorification of the saints. But the Holy City to come, we are told, is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, many of whom witnessed unto death. Indeed, we might say that the beheading of John is the necessary and realistic contrast with the extraordinary assumption of Elijah, the prophet, who was snatched up to glory without seeing death—though he had, of course, seen much sorrow for the sake of righteousness during his life. The gospel of Mark, in fact, tells the story of John’s beheading as a kind of accent to the success of the apostles, sent out by Jesus to preach, teach, and cast out demons. In reading the passage for this Saturday (Mark 6:14-30), notice how the mission of the apostles is interrupted by the dark background of John’s murder at the hands of Herod, that leader intent to solidify his command, no matter what means are necessary.

When Herod hears of the splash the apostles are making, he is fearful that John has returned from the grave to harass him. We may be reminded of the change of mood in the Fiddler on the Roof, where, in Tevye’s dream, the deceased wife of the butcher returns to quell the family’s enthusiasm for a proposed upcoming marriage. When we read the story of the apostles’ mission, interrupted by Herod’s flashback to John, and the story of his murder, we are brought up short by the bracing reality of life, with its habitual dismissal of all things godly. Like the apostles, we are driven to return to Jesus, who will likely direct us, like he did the apostles, to a time of quiet, introspection and prayer: “The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.’” (Mar 6:30-31 RSV).

Let us use this Saturday, then, as a similar lonely place, a place of rest and communion with God, in which we can tell Him all that has been happening, and receive His council. One of the topics upon which we might meditate is suggested by the fast-day itself. As Christians, how do we think about atrocities such as the beheading of this good man, the man about which Jesus himself said, “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mat 11:11 RSV). Such atrocities are not so very far away from events of our own day. Beheadings and other tortures of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East by ISIS, and even the desecration of martyrs’ relics accost our sensibilities week by week. And closer to home, more clandestine brutality commands our attention, if we are prepared to listen to the courageous witness of our brother David Daleiden concerning the slaughter of innocent babies and the dishonoring of their bodies for profit.

Perhaps a generation or so ago modern Christians in a secure context could wonder at the barbarity of past times, or ancient lands. This was always stork-like behavior, but it is impossible for us now to attribute blood-guilt only to other times and other societies. It is here, at our doorstep, and may even involve us when we least expect it.

Consider, after all, the plight of Herod. Herod revered John and wanted to keep him safe. Even though John told the uncomfortable truth about Herod’s incestuous relationship with Herodias, we are told that he believed him to be a prophet and “heard him gladly.” But he compromised, didn’t he? In order to please his hateful and depraved wife, he had John arrested, impeded from continuing his ministry. John’s nemesis was Herodias, much like the prophet Elijah was so very hated by Queen Jezebel. Unlike King Ahab, however, Herod wanted to keep the prophet safe: but circumstances, largely driven by his own weak and corrupt temperament, would dictate otherwise. His weakness for Herodias, his desire for partying, pleasure and power, his self-indulgence and pride among his courtiers, his rash bravado in issuing an unconditional oath, his inability to retract his word when it was a false one—all this led to the murder of the righteous John, just as surely as the malice of Herodias. The language of the gospel account tips us off: “for the sake of Herodias,” “for his courtiers and officers and leading man,” “the girl pleased Herod,” “because of his oaths and guests and not to break his word to her.” Herod put his own passion for Herodias, pleasure in Salome, and reputation among others before his reverence and respect for the Forerunner. So, inevitably, he came to the point where he was “exceedingly sorry” but became implicated in, indeed mainly responsible for, murder. His actions foreshadow the time when Pilate would wash hands, but still commission the crucifixion of the One whose sandals, as John said, he was unworthy to fasten.

Herod could have heeded the words of Moses and the prophets that he no doubt heard from John’s lips. Indeed, to recall God’s words through Moses and the prophets was the very role of the Forerunner, as the prophet Malachi had said:
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.”
(Mal 4:4-6, RSV, cf. Luke 1:17; Mat 11:14)

Herod, who had a partial Jewish heritage, but ruled on behalf of the Romans, had the opportunity to hear John gladly, and to hear him even more frequently while John was imprisoned in his palace. But Herod’s delight in John’s words did not change him at the root—he persisted in the life of degradation and compromise that he had been pursuing, and so became one of those who heard the word and forgot it. Indeed, he entered into the long line of rebels who rejected God’s word and killed the prophets whom God sent. He did not have a heart for his fathers and the God of his fathers, and he cared little about his REAL children, the people of Galilee, for he favored the pagan daughter of his adulterous Gentile wife. His actions, replicated by the similar compromises of Pilate, are bound up in the luminous statement of the fourth gospel: “[God] came to his own, but they did not receive Him.”

Before we condemn Herod and Pilate, it is incumbent upon us to consider at which points we are in similar danger. Where are the points at which seeking the favor of our families, friends, and peers, tempts us to be complicit in evil? Even our embarrassment over contemporary figures who are blunt in the same way as John the Forerunner serves as a tip-off! We are frequently more concerned about appearance than reality. The Baptist may not have been that smooth and tactful type, sure to win friends and influence people: but it is of him as a prophet that Jesus said “none is greater.” What happened to John happened to Jesus—and a servant, we have been told, is not greater than the master. This is true not only of servants in the past, but of us, as well. Those in the Kingdom, those who belong to Christ, are to be even greater than John, we are told by Jesus himself—notice that on the iconostasis our mother Mary is on Jesus’ right hand side, while the Forerunner is on the left. Our holy Theotokos suffered much; as the prophet Simeon declared, her soul was pierced. In saying yes to God, she found herself inevitably out of step with the world, and a witness to the truthfulness of God in the darkness: we, too, are called to bear the cross.

At which points do we, as followers of Jesus, find ourselves out of step with the world, and uncomfortably tempted to move from the position of John to the position of Herod, from the self-sacrifice and truthfulness of Jesus, to the guilty safety of Pilate? In every age there are those points that act as kind of shibboleths, indicating where our homeland truly is. Surely the public challenges of today are in the area of morality and sexuality—and this is similar, isn’t it, to the first century, where John challenged Herod concerning what was lawful. It is tempting to back off, just to be silent, concerning our society’s move to self-deception and self-destruction in the areas of serial polygamy (prevalent divorce), rampant unchastity, the devaluing of both celibacy and family, and same-sex eroticism.

With regards to the latter, it would be simple to forget our duty to speak the truth to those who style themselves as GLBTI, and not to embrace them with the call to repentance, issued to every one of us, and the promises of the gospel. As for the destructive tendencies of the culture of death that surrounds us, it is easy ignore what goes on in Planned Parenthood and other clinics every day of the week in America, forgetting that the slaughter of unborn babies every year in America in PP equals the population of Pittsburgh! Are the abortuaries the equivalent of Herod’s dungeon: out of sight, out of mind? Are we fearful of a plight like John’s if we speak to our gay and lesbian friends, risking marginalization or even prosecution when we truly befriend them with the truth and with hope? There are many problems, to be sure, in our day, that command our attention as Christians. But these are two which are different, because they are not considered tragic by the rest of our society, and they are causes that can get the person who tackles them in a situation of social ostracism, or even worse.

We do not know what we will be called to in this life. So far the atrocities of Syria and other middle Eastern venues has largely stayed off our shores. But we are called, daily, to stand where we are, in our own context, even when that apparently safe context threatens to be hostile. If we cannot stand for truth in these politically incorrect matters that are destroying lives all around us, we will be unprepared for other more obvious dangers when they arise. Meanwhile, our lack of action, or compromise, bears consequences. Those who identify as GLBTI hear many so-called Christian voices confirming them in their path, as do our sexually disoriented unmarried and promiscuous youth, and those older couples who seek divorce because they misunderstand the nature of marriage. In the abortion crisis, babies die, women are wounded psychologically, and sometimes physically, health workers are brutalized, and society continues to celebrate this as “liberation.”

Consider how God used the Forerunner, even during his time in prison, and in the way that he finished his course. Here was a man with no delusions of grandeur, who said, with humility, “he must increase and I must decrease.” Here was one whose gruesome story, with its icon, reminds us that in this world we are playing for keeps—what we say and don’t say, what we do, and what we neglect to do, matter. The presence of John the Forerunner in the New Testament is a link with the demands of the Old, reminding us that we, as well as Israel, are called to be holy, because God is holy. Repentance is normalized into our Christian life of grace, from beginning to end, so that we do not abandon the high ethics of the Torah, but, like Jesus, see that it is fulfilled and even surpassed in our lives. It is by us that our generation will hear the words of the prophets, pointing to Jesus, so that it will not follow in the train of those who rejected God the Son in the first century.

St. Paul, speaking in a synagogue in Asia Minor, lamented over his Judean compatriots who “did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath” (The story is found in Act 13:24-33 the epistle for the fast.) In this homily, he called upon those listening to him to heed the promise and warning of Psalm 2, where the Father declares, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee.” and warns us “Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling.” (Ps 2:10-12 RSV). As he called attention to this Psalm of judgment mingled with promise, Paul continued in the spirit of John, focusing upon Jesus, and he also extended the campaign of John to turn the sons back to the fathers. Later, the apostle Paul, like John, was martyred for bearing witness to God’s Word.

This is the challenge that I perceive as we solemnly remember the Beheading of the Forerunner this day. There is, in this story, both a cautionary tale (for we are not to be Herods!) and a pattern to follow (for John is our father in the Lord). We do not run before the Lord, but after Him, following in his footsteps. To us, even more has been given than was given to John in his earthly life, for we have seen the True Light of the resurrection and together received the heavenly Spirit in fullness! Let us heed the cautionary tale of Herod and take inspiration from the Forerunner, dedicating ourselves in our own age to uncompromising truth and unsentimental compassion, even when this becomes uncomfortable for us and for those who hear us.

Not all of us have the prophetic charism; but each of us has received, like the Colossians in their depraved and confused age, this word: “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one” (Col 4:5-6 RSV). To conduct ourselves wisely and to discern the present time means to become informed about the plagues and confusions of our day, and to find out what godly Christians, past and present, have said in addressing same-sex eroticism and abortion by means of the Bible and the Holy Tradition. It means to care about those who have been led astray by contemporary actions and ideologies supporting these actions, and not to simply turn away as though these are not OUR issues. Each of us is called to be informed and to know how to answer when asked, or when someone who is involved crosses our path. And each of us is called to support and pray for those on the battlefront, those who seek to show the forthrightness of John the Forerunner and the courage of St. Paul for the sake of a confused and brutal world.

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