The Beheading of Saint John the Forerunner

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
We decrease ; the Lord increases
The Beheading of Saint John the Forerunner
29 August, 2009
Acts 13:25-32 ; Mark 6:14-30
1 Corinthians 1:26-29 ; Matthew 20:29-34

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

On this day, we are remembering the Beheading of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John. This martyrdom occurred partly because the Forerunner was pointing out the corruption of King Herod’s personal life in a public way, and the king felt embarrassed. Nevertheless, he respected the Prophet. However, King Herod was immorally and illegally married to his brother’s wife. This incestuous wife, Herodias, bore the Prophet a bitter grudge. A time came when King Herod was “in his cups” (as the saying goes), and he promised Salome to give her anything that she asked. However, she did not know what to ask, and asked her mother. Her mother said : “‘Give me John the Baptist’s head here on a platter’” (Matthew 14:8). Therefore, King Herod was asked by Salome to provide this. We are told in the Gospel that he was very sorry that he had to do this (he was obviously a conflicted man), but at the same time, a promise is a promise from a king, and therefore he had to order that it be so.

It seems that we do not remember the Forerunner nearly enough, even though in this country, with the arrival of the French, he has always been considered as a sort of Canadian patron saint of this country. It seems to me that many people do not remember him except for the fact that he existed, in much the same way as people who live in a town in Québec called Sainte-Jean-Chrysostome, consider it to be merely some arbitrary name. However, they have no idea who Saint John Chrysostom is. Therefore, people tend not to pay attention to the importance of the Forerunner : what he said, what he did, how he was, what is his example to us. Above all, he reveals to us the love of God. The fact that he was a cousin of our Saviour is a significant factor. His love for God is clearly manifest. Why else would one withdraw into the desert, and live on honey and beans (or insects, depending on how one chooses to interpret the word). I rather think the word is more likely to be “beans” rather than “insects” because locusts only come sometimes.

The Forerunner’s example is for us like that of Saint Mary of Egypt – living in the desert, and depending completely on God for his sustenance. He lived in the desert out of love for the Lord, and he depended on the Lord completely for everything. He told everyone around him to repent. What does this “repenting” mean of which the Prophet is telling us ? It does not mean that we are expected to be going around and beating our breast, bashing ourselves for our sins, and always being self-condemning (as many people seem to think). It means rather that we should turn about. We should make a 180 degree turn. We should turn away from our selfishness to selflessness. We should turn from self-love to selfless love. We should turn from darkness to light. We should turn from death to life. This is what the Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John is talking about. He is telling us clearly that God is calling us.

We see the example of our Saviour today, when He heals the two blind men at the side of the road, even when the crowd was pushing them away. He asks them : “‘What do you want Me to do for you?’” They ask to receive their sight. Out of compassion, He gives them their sight. What do they do ? They follow Him, having received their sight. They receive not only their physical sight, but sight in their hearts. They recognise clearly Who He is. They knew already that He is the Son of David. Now this title “Son of David” more clearly makes sense because of this sign of their healing. They understand that He is the One who is sent to redeem the world. They understand that He is the Christ. They understand that He is indeed the Saviour.

In today’s Epistle reading, the Apostle says that the Lord chooses the insignificant ones of the earth in order to confound the wise. Why does He do this ? The Forerunner is an insignificant person in terms of the world. It is understood that we cannot get anywhere in society by living in the desert, living on beans and honey, wearing some skins or old rags, walking around with a stick, and telling people to turn about. We cannot get anywhere in the world with that sort of behaviour. We cannot get anywhere in the world by living in the desert as Saint Mary of Egypt did either, because the way of the world is completely obsessed with power. It is focussed on grasping and struggling to get to the top of the pile of something.

When I was in Norway again this year, as always we go to the Frogener Park, which is a big sculpture park with all sorts of controversial (for Norwegians) sculptures by Vigeland. The sculptures are about 100 years old, but because Norwegians are who they are, they are still controversial. However, in the middle of this park there is a very significant pillar. It is a very tall granite pillar which is made up of human bodies all intertwined with each other, going to the top of this thing. We can see people struggling to get to the top, and my cousins (who are artists) pointed out to me : “What happens at the top ?” What happens at the top is that as soon as a person gets to the top, there is someone else dragging him or her down. That is what it is to get to the top, and to be on the top. There is a continual circulation on this pillar of people pulling their way to the top, and others pulling them down, and their having to go back up again. All this struggle is for nothing – this pillar does not go anywhere. It is merely a pillar standing by itself in the middle of a park. Vigeland says that this pillar stands for how our life is without the Lord : struggling to get to “the top”, pretending to be someone special and powerful. In this situation of tangled struggle, a person could ask : “Who am I ? I am simply one person who is pulled down instantly by someone who is trying to throw me out of the way. Then I have to struggle to get back up again”.

This is not the way of the Christian at all. We call ourselves “wise”, but we are not wise if we are struggling to be “somebody” or “something”, or achieve this or that without the Lord. If we really want to be who God created us to be, then it is important for us to give up ideas of grandeur, and to remember instead that our Saviour came as the Servant of all. He, as the Servant of all, does such things as heal these blind men today. He touches your heart and my heart, broken, and in pain. He comes to us in our need and He meets our need. He heals our diseases. He unites us to Himself. He gives us Life.

It is necessary for us to remember this, because if we do not make ourself into something, then the Lord will make us into the person He created us to be in the context of His love. Greatness is found in lowliness. Who is the greatest among women ? It is the Mother of God. What did she sing ? She sang : For He has looked attentively upon the humility of His bond-maiden (Luke 1:48). It is essential that we Christians remember this important lesson : I do not need to be anyone particularly significant. I need to be a servant of the Lord, and do His will. This is what greatness is, anyway – doing His will. There is life in doing His will. There is life in serving Him. There is life in helping people around us. This life is much more significant than having some sort of power, a big name in society, and so forth. Being a real human being who loves other human beings, who serves other human beings in the love of Jesus Christ – that is what is important.

That is why the Prophet and Forerunner is so great and so central for us. That is why (even if we seem to be constantly forgetting about him or neglecting his memory) he is always prominent in our iconography, always put before us by the Tradition of the Church, so that we will remember. Even if we are so forgetful, we will be prodded to remember, because the Prophet is always before us. The Lord makes him great because of his humility. He continues to intercede for people as the other saints continue to intercede for people and to bring to us the Lord’s healing power. To the all-holy Trinity be glory : Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.