For contemporary Westerners, it seems a bit odd to commemorate a beheading. Christians, of course, venerate many martyrs, but rarely do we remember their modes of death as unambiguously as we do today on the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. So why all here? Why now?
We must recall that St. John the Baptist was, according to St. Sophronius, an “earthly angel in human body.” He “went into the desert to imitate not men but the angels.” For this reason, he is often depicted with wings in the Byzantine tradition; his life of asceticism, his announcement of the Incarnate God, his role as the last of the prophets, and as the greatest born of a woman—as Jesus Himself tells us—demand our respect and veneration. He serves as an example of the simple life of humility, united to God’s will.
But more than this John died for the Faith. He died, perhaps more accurately—like St. Stephen—because he testified to the truths of humility and self-denial in a corrupt and fallen world, the world of Herod, a court—as the account tells us—filled with dancing, lasciviousness, and finery. These things ran opposite the Baptist’s insistence on piety and simplicity.
In this sense, his beheading is a visceral reminder of the slings and arrows of fate that afflict all in this world, and especially those who desire to live with a foolish simplicity and faith in God and His will. This is not unlike the “foolish simplicity” observed by many pious people on this feast day—fasting, refusing to eat anything round, and forsaking plates. These are customs passed down to us in memory not just of a holy man but also of the holy life for which he died, the one we continue to try to live, the one that may appear as foolishness.
We remember St. John’s death not merely to commemorate his life but also to remind ourselves of the basic (and yet easily forgotten) truths of the faith: simplicity, self-denial, forgiveness, those ideas well encapsulated in the two previous Gospel readings from St. Matthew. We celebrate, because as St. Theodore the Studite has asked, “is there need for us to extol John the Baptist when he was so highly extolled by Christ Himself, Who is the Truth and the Eternal Word of God?” We might add: is there any better way to re-center ourselves in the Christian life than to remember the sacrificial death of the one who announced Christ, this “earthly angel in human body”?
By Chase J. Padusniak