Today, August 29, in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Σήμερα η Εκκλησία γιόρταζει την μνήμη της Αποκεφάλισης του τιμιίου Προφήτου, Προδρόμου και Βαπτιστού Αγίου Ιωάννου. Η Εκκλησία φέρνει στον νου μας, στην σκέψη μας, στην ζωή μας, το παράδειγμα του Αγίου Ιωάννου και την θλιβερή αλλά και ένδοξη μαρτυρία του.
We find today's story in the Holy Scriptures. Today is a day of strict fasting in honor of the holy prophet who went to his humiliating death yet received the glorious heavenly crown from the Lord. Saint John went to his martyrdom not afraid to preach the truth, not afraid to witness to Christ, not afraid to speak out against immorality. We see the faith, purity, fearlessness and love of Saint John in stark contrast to the blasphemies, lust, disregard for morals, and hate of Herod and his family.
The following is the Gospel Reading during Liturgy for today's feast in English and Greek, followed by some wisdom from Saints Nikolai Velimirovich and Justin Popovic, Serbian Saints of the 20th century.
Mark 6:14-30 (NKJV)
Now King Herod heard of Him, for His name had become well known. And he said, "John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him." Others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is the Prophet, or like one of the prophets." But when Herod heard, he said, "This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!" For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod 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. Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. And when Herodias' daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, "Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you." He also swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom." So she went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask?" And she said, "The head of John the Baptist!" Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter."And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb. Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught.
Καὶ ἤκουσεν ὁ βασιλεὺς Ἡρῴδης· φανερὸν γὰρ ἐγένετο τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ· καὶ ἔλεγεν ὅτι Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐκ νεκρῶν ἠγέρθη, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἐνεργοῦσιν αἱ δυνάμεις ἐν αὐτῷ. ἄλλοι ἔλεγον ὅτι Ἠλίας ἐστίν· ἄλλοι δὲ ἔλεγον ὅτι προφήτης ὡς εἷς τῶν προφητῶν. ἀκούσας δὲ ὁ Ἡρῴδης εἶπεν ὅτι Ὃν ἐγὼ ἀπεκεφάλισα Ἰωάννην, οὗτός ἐστιν· αὐτὸς ἠγέρθη ἐκ νεκρῶν. αὐτὸς γὰρ ὁ Ἡρῴδης ἀποστείλας ἐκράτησε τὸν Ἰωάννην καὶ ἔδησεν αὐτὸν ἐν φυλακῇ διὰ Ἡρῳδιάδα τὴν γυναῖκα Φιλίππου τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ ὅτι αὐτὴν ἐγάμησεν. ἔλεγε γὰρ ὁ Ἰωάννης τῷ Ἡρῴδῃ ὅτι Οὐκ ἔξεστί σοι ἔχειν τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ σου. ἡ δὲ Ἡρῳδιὰς ἐνεῖχεν αὐτῷ καὶ ἤθελεν αὐτὸν ἀποκτεῖναι, καὶ οὐκ ἠδύνατο· ὁ γὰρ Ἡρῴδης ἐφοβεῖτο τὸν Ἰωάννην, εἰδὼς αὐτὸν ἄνδρα δίκαιον καὶ ἅγιον, καὶ συνετήρει αὐτόν καὶ ἀκούσας αὐτοῦ πολλὰ ἐποίει καὶ ἡδέως αὐτοῦ ἤκουε. καὶ γενομένης ἡμέρας εὐκαίρου, ὅτε Ἡρῴδης τοῖς γενεσίοις αὐτοῦ δεῖπνον ἐποίει τοῖς μεγιστᾶσιν αὐτοῦ καὶ τοῖς χιλιάρχοις καὶ τοῖς πρώτοις τῆς Γαλιλαίας, καὶ εἰσελθούσης τῆς θυγατρὸς αὐτῆς τῆς Ἡρῳδιάδος καὶ ὀρχησαμένης καὶ ἀρεσάσης τῷ Ἡρῴδῃ καὶ τοῖς συνανακειμένοις, εἶπεν ὁ βασιλεὺς τῷ κορασίῳ· Αἴτησόν με ὃ ἐὰν θέλῃς, καὶ δώσω σοι. καὶ ὤμοσεν αὐτῇ ὅτι Ὅ ἐάν με αἰτήσῃς δώσω σοι ἕως ἡμίσους τῆς βασιλείας μου. ἡ δὲ ἐξελθοῦσα εἶπε τῇ μητρὶ αὐτῆς· Τί αἰτήσομαι; ἡ δὲ εἶπε· Τὴν κεφαλὴν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ. καὶ εἰσελθοῦσα εὐθέως μετὰ σπουδῆς πρὸς τὸν βασιλέα ᾐτήσατο λέγουσα· Θέλω ἵνα μοι δῷς ἐξαυτῆς ἐπὶ πίνακι τὴν κεφαλὴν Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ. καὶ περίλυπος γενόμενος ὁ βασιλεὺς, διὰ τοὺς ὅρκους καὶ τοὺς συνανακειμένους οὐκ ἠθέλησεν αὐτὴν ἀθετῆσαι. καὶ εὐθέως ἀποστείλας ὁ βασιλεὺς σπεκουλάτωρα ἐπέταξεν ἐνεχθῆναι τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ. ὁ δὲ ἀπελθὼν ἀπεκεφάλισεν αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ φυλακῇ, καὶ ἤνεγκε τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ πίνακι καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτὴν τῷ κορασίῳ, καὶ τὸ κοράσιον ἔδωκεν αὐτὴν τῇ μητρὶ αὐτῆς. καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἦλθον καὶ ἦραν τὸ πτῶμα αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἔθηκαν αὐτὸ ἐν μνημείῳ. Καὶ συνάγονται οἱ ἀπόστολοι πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν, καὶ ἀπήγγειλαν αὐτῷ πάντα, καὶ ὅσα ἐποιήσαν καὶ ὅσα ἐδίδαξαν.
(The Greek text is from the online library of the Church of Greece, www.myriobiblos.gr).
From the Serbian Saint Nikolai Velimirovich's Prologue From Ohrid, courtesy of the Western American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America
Herod Antipas, son of the elder Herod, who was the slayer of the children of Bethlehem at the time of the birth of the Lord Jesus, was ruler of Galilee at the time when John the Baptist was preaching. This Herod was married to the daughter of Aretas, an Arabian prince. But Herod, an evil sprout of an evil root, put away his lawful wife and unlawfully took unto himself Herodias as his concubine, the wife of his brother Philip, who was still living. John the Baptist stood up against this lawlessness and strongly denounced Herod who then cast John into prison. At the time of a banquet in his court in Sebastia in Galilee Salome, the daughter of Herodias and Philip, danced before the guests. The drunken Herod was so taken by this dance that he promised Salome that he would give her whatever she asked of him, even though it be half of his kingdom. Being persuaded by her mother, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod gave the order and John was beheaded in prison and his head brought to him on a platter. John's disciples took the body of their teacher by night and honorably buried it and Herodias pierced the tongue of John with a needle in many places and buried the head in an unclean place. What later happened to John the Baptist's head can be read on February 24. However, God's punishment quickly befell this group of evil doers. Prince Aretas, in order to cleanse his daughter's honor, attacked Herod with his army and defeated him. The defeated Herod was sentenced by the Roman Caesar, Caligula, to exile at first to Gaul and later to Spain. As exiles, Herod and Herodias lived in poverty and humiliation until the earth opened up and swallowed them. Salome died an evil death on the Sikaris (Sula) river. The death of St. John occurred before the Pascha [Passover] but its celebration on August 29 was established because, on that day, a church which had been built over his grave in Sebastia by Emperor Constantine and Empress Helena was consecrated. In this church the relics of John's disciples, Eliseus and Audius, were also placed.
From a Homily of Saint Justin Popovic on the Beheading of St. John, courtesy of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Washington, D.C., www.stjohndc.org
Today, in glorifying that great and glorious first Apostle, first Martyr, first Evangelist, Precursor to all true Christians of all time, we bow down before his joyous suffering for Christ's Truth and His Holy Gospel, before him as Apostle and Martyr. Consider, already for 2,000 years, the One who allowed the lawless king to behead him, has been working countless miracles in the earthly realm, living in it alongside the Lord Jesus Christ. For 2000 years, he has been ceaselessly working miracles for all those who turn to him in prayer.
Brothers and sisters, whenever you are in great sorrow, turn to that first Apostle of Christ, and he will help you with all of your burdens. And should some kind of misfortune happen, turn to that first Evangelist. No matter what bitterness might fill your soul, he will sweeten it with Christ's grace, which he will mystically send down to your tortured soul from the World on High. And when you find yourself in temptations and horrors of this earthly life, run to him, to the Holy Confessor; tell him what is in your heart, pour out your sorrows and spiritual needs and rest assured that in a mystical, divine manner, he will come down into your soul and will save you, and will deliver you from all temptations and woes. But should need to suffer for the Lord Jesus Christ in this world: should others attack you on all sides, should atheists and those who oppose Christ want to swallow you up, to destroy you for belonging to Christ, want to silence your voice, to stop it from speaking of Christ, then remember that first Martyr, and call out to him: O Holy Martyr, first Martyr of Christ in the Gospels, hurry to my aid! Grant that may I die for the Lord Jesus Christ, leave my body like temporary clothing, and by the path of the Holy Martyrs move to Christ's Kingdom! He will enteat the Lord that you might also join the host of Luminaries. Thus, today's little Great Friday becomes for us the great joy of the Resurrection. Friday is small, but Sunday, the Resurrection, is great – resurrection for all Christians of all time. And for us today: for me, for you, for every Christian living today, today's Great Friday is at the same time the Resurrection, for today we glorify the St. John the Baptist who is eternally alive in the Heavens; [we glorify] his victory over the death appointed to him by Herod, his soaring up into the Heavenly Realm, to be the first after the Mother of God, to stand beside the Lord Jesus Christ. You have seen the icon known as the "Deisis" i.e. "Prayer" Icon. In it, the Lord sits on the Throne of Glory, as King of Heaven. On His right is the Most-holy Mother of God, and on His left, the Holy Forerunner. They pray to Him for the human race.