Our Life in Christ

Our Life In Christ 

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist – August 29, 2021

by Fr. Jonathan Cholcher

Walking on waters

The glorious beheading of the Forerunner
is part of a certain divine dispensation,
for he preached in hell the coming of the Savior!
Then Herodias lamented,
for she loved not the law of God, nor the living age,
and had asked for him to be unjustly put to death,//
for she loved that which is false and temporal.
(Kontakion [Hymn of the Day])

Saint John the Baptist (lit., baptizer) is the “greatest among those born of women” (Matt. 11:11), the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant going before and announcing the coming Christ (Luke 1:17, 76; hence, the Forerunner), the Lord’s “angel” (lit., messenger) and “voice crying in the wilderness” (Mark 1:2-3). John was set apart for his service both as an ascetic (Nazarite) and by being filled with the Holy Spirit “from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15; Numbers 6:1ff.); indeed, he came in the same Spirit that inspired the prophet Elijah and even dressed like him (Luke 1:17; Mark 1:6; 4 Kgm. 1:8).

John is called “the Baptizer” because the washing he performed on people in the Jordan River was his distinguishing activity. Accepting John’s baptism meant that a person heard the prophet’s words and changed oneself accordingly, confessing one’s sins and leaving them behind in repentance to practice the righteousness of God in hope of salvation in the Christ (Messiah/Savior) to come (Luke 3:7-17; 7:29-30). John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him (i.e., the Christ), but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34; Matthew 3:13-17).

John’s purpose and ministry in life was to provide an unmistakable testimony to the arrival of the Savior and His kingdom which had been prophesied for centuries and was now being fulfilled in the presence of the people. “You yourselves bear me witness,” said John to the Jews, “that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him’…He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28, 30).

Therefore in the Church, we venerate John the Baptist just as we venerate the Virgin Mary Theotokos. No one is closer to God, literally, than the Virgin Mary who as the Bride of God bore Christ Jesus in her womb, and no one comes to God except through the Virgin Mary through whom God came into the world. Similarly, standing right there calling all to this Mystery of salvation is John the Baptist, “the friend of the Bridegroom” (John 3:29). He was the one in the water of the Jordan beholding the heavenly vision of the Holy Trinity: the Son of God baptized at his hands, the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove and remaining on the Son, and the Father speaking from heaven, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11; Lk. 3:21-22; Jn. 1:32-34).

The world, however, neither knows nor appreciates this vision or the witness of John. The world and its rulers, in their lust for power and personal gratification, only misrepresent and reject the witness of John and his person, and in so doing reject salvation in Christ and His person.

“Now Herod the tetrarch heard f all that was done by [Jesus]; and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, and by others that one of the old prophets had risen again. Herod said, ‘John I have beheaded, but who is this of whom I hear such things?’ So he sought to see Him” (Luke 9:7-9). Though “Herod (i.e., Antipas, son of Herod the Great) feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20) – despite this, Herod Antipas imprisoned John and eventually gave the order to satisfy his wife’s desire to kill him by beheading. Despite Herod’s acquaintance with John’s holiness and shared influence with Jesus Christ (Mk. 6:14-16), having finally met Jesus and abused Him before His crucifixion, Herod revealed his true affinity with the godless forces of the world choosing to befriend Pontius Pilate, his former enemy, on the basis of their mutual contempt for Christ (Luke 23:6-12).

The beheading of Saint John the Baptist reveals the nature of our Christian life here and the true struggle in which we must engage. John simply carried out his mission to preach Christ and His righteousness disdaining each and every comfort the world might offer in their place. John preached boldly to high and low alike, to rich and poor, to the powerful and the powerless. As the immediate Forerunner of Christ, we declare in the hymns of the Church that John even preceded Christ into Hades – the realm of the souls departed from their bodies – preaching the coming Christ who would shortly break the bars of death and hell by His glorious Resurrection.

Those with power and position in this world interpret John’s message not as a spiritual one pertaining to the eternal Kingdom of God and our participation in it; rather, those desirous of and possessing worldly position interpret John’s message of righteousness as a threat to their livelihood, a political affront to their personal morality, or lack thereof. Saint Paul writes: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Cor. 1:26-28).

In Herod Antipas, his wife Herodias, their family, and their friends, we see what our pride, our arrogance, our envy, and our desire for pleasure can do, shrouding us in a demonic blanket of darkness to the truths of God resulting in the complete disregard of goodness to the point of gleeful murder. In John the Baptist, we see the unflinching hope of life in the Kingdom of Christ empowering us to remain steadfast in faith, in chastity, in courageous witness to the truths of God, and in a clean conscience before God having renounced the false pleasures of this world, enabling us to live forever with God and His saints in the heavenly places.