The Beheading of John the Baptist

The Beheading of John the Baptist August 28, 2019
Anonymous: Head of Saint John the Baptist / WikimediaCommons

The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise/ but the Lord’s testimony is enough for thee, O Forerunner,/ for thou wast shown to be more wonderful than the Prophets/ since thou wast granted to baptize in the running waters / Him Whom thou didst proclaim./ Then having endured great suffering for the Truth,/ Thou didst rejoice to bring, even to those in hell/ the good tidings that God Who had appeared in the flesh/ takes away the sin of the world/ and grants us the great mercy.  (Troparion for the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist).

John the Baptist’s mission, his life, was entirely intertwined with Jesus. John prepared the way for Gospel. He spoke against the evils he found in the world, preaching repentance. People had to come to terms with the way sin had taken control of their lives – and with the world at large. Only then would they be read to accept Jesus and his offer of healing grace.

The world with its superficial glory could not stand what John had to say. Many came seeking his approval, but if they were unwilling to change their ways, John did not grant it. John baptized those who came with true sorrow for their sins, allowing them to begin their life anew as penitents awaiting the kingdom of God. John knew it was time for the revelation of the kingdom of God. He had experienced it while in his mother’s womb. But he knew his mission was to make clear the difference between society, with all its structures covered by sin, and the kingdom of God. He had an experience of it, but he also knew, as he was not the Lord of that kingdom, he could not give that experience to others. He could only offer himself as the counter-point to the world at large, living as he did, all alone in the wilderness.

Because of his opposition to the way of the world, to the structures of sin which he saw within Judea, Herod and Herodias could not stand John, which is why they had him executed. John’s call for justice, his call for righteousness, struck against their stranglehold upon the people. In order to keep in power, they knew John had to be destroyed.  St. Anthony of Padua saw in them the representations of the inordinate desires of world and the flesh as they try to strangle grace: “Herod and Herodias, the world and the flesh, bind this John (thus enlightened by the grace of the Lord) with their bonds of worldly vanity and the pleasure of the flesh. The vanity of the world consists in pride and avarice; the pleasure of the flesh in gluttony and lust.”[1] Today, the spirit of Herod and Herodias continues with us in those who give preference to rich, the prideful, the arrogant and powerful, as well as in those who back rape culture and those who promote white supremacy, as they all come with the same sense of entitlement which cannot stand the calls of justice from those who follow the prophetic legacy of John the Baptist.

Nonetheless, despite their intent to stop John’s call for justice, his execution only strengthened it. He was remembered as a prophet, and like the prophets of old, his death allowed him to be glorified. Thus, as we consistently see in Scripture, when the world tries to strangle and destroy the voice which cries out for justice, its power-play will only strengthen and elevate that call as it is spread far and wide. While a particular person, like John, can be executed, their legacy will live on, and the kingdom of God will reveal itself in the midst of that legacy. The kingdom of God cannot not be overtaken by the gates of hell. The violence which befell John did not overcome John: he, instead, was victorious as he was able to continue his mission, to be the voice preparing the way for the Lord. Accordingly, it is said that he went to Hades, to the land of the dead, and spoke of the coming of Christ amongst them.

The beheading of John the Baptist was shocking and yet, in a way, it indicated his liberation from the world. He transcended it. He lived apart from the world, living a spiritualized existence. As Sergius Bulgakov explained, angels are often seen as represented in icons by heads with wings, and so John the Baptist holds his head in icons indicating his otherwise angelic nature:

However, the Forerunner did not precede his Lord by being crucified, but was executed by decapitation. The latter, like most of the forms of martyrdom, is, first of all, a baptism by blood, which is shed copiously here. Furthermore, it is a division of the body: the head, the seat of thought and word, is separated from the rest of the body, which contains the organs that govern the sensuous and sensual life. Was not this separation, this liberation of spirit from the flesh, accomplished by the Forerunner himself in the course of his entire saintly life that was like that of an angel? And is this not expressed by the icon that represents him as holding his own head in his hands? Angels are often represented on icons by a head and wings, but without a body. This decapitation constitutes the Forerunner’s silent answer to those powers of sin and evil that, in the person of the criminal mother and daughter, wished to possess him through the infirmity of the fleshly nature: the Forerunner was not subject to the latter. And the Forerunner’s head continues its life, as it were, without the rest of the body. [2]

John was the voice speaking a message about the kingdom of God; he was an angel in the wilderness, the messenger who prepared the way for Christ. He was given a special mission, as special destiny, as the Friend of the Bridegroom. As that friend, he understood his own destiny was tied with the Bridegroom, that he must willingly let the Bridegroom be exalted while he himself be so humbled that he became, as it were, the least in the kingdom of heaven. But it must be understood, as Paul Evdokimov stated, this willingness to become the least in the kingdom of heaven revealed John’s authentic greatness, as it is the way of those who are truly great to empty themselves of all pretense of greatness:

St. John is at the same time the greatest and the least, and he is the greatest because he is the least. Hearing the voice of the Bridegroom, his friend says. “This my joy, therefore, has been fulfilled.” The joyous self-effacement is so deep that at this level the Bridegroom and his friend converge in the ineffable grandeur that unites them. God had become man and man had become God to the point that people asked themselves whether John was not the Christ. Now for all of us God manifestly places St. John and the Virgin at the summit of the universal priesthood, as a “guiding image” in the service of his Church. This is clearly shown in the composition of the Deisis, the icon that represents the Lord in royal garments with his mother on his right and his friend on his left.[3]

Humanity must follow John. We must empty ourselves of all pretense of glory. Then we can truly do what needs to be done to be voices for justice, true justice, promoting the way of Christ, with his ability to restore what had been lost due to injustice. The gate to the kingdom of God is open, but it is narrow, and only if we divest ourselves of any pretense of self-made glory can we squeeze through the eye of the needle at that gate and be elevated to true grandeur. We must decrease with John, so we can then find ourselves united with Christ.

[1] St. Anthony of Padua, Sermons for Sundays and Festivals. Volume III. trans. Paul Spilsbury (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2009), 233.

[2] Sergius Bulgakov, Friend of the Bridegroom. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdman’s Publishing Company,2003), 129.

[3] Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life. Trans. Sister Gertrude. S.P.; rev. Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 169.


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