Saint John the Baptist
On the 11th of September, the Orthodox Christians that follow the Julian calendar commemorate Saint John the Forerunner by celebrating the feast day of his Martyrdom.
John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus Christ, is a very intriguing and important character in the Bible. We know both the story of his birth and his death, and his death is mentioned in three of the four Gospels, which is very rare in the Bible.
Saint John has been promised by the prophets: In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3). Later Jesus said that no other prophet was greater than St. John the Baptist.
He lived in the desert for many years, spending most of his life in the wilderness. His ongoing message was to prepare the coming of the Messiah. This is why he is often called the Forerunner of Christ. He was the one who preached those famous words: Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 4:17)
He dressed in camel skin, he ate nothing but locusts and wild honey. This is the reason why he is often regarded as an example of asceticism. He preached about Christ, baptized people in the river of Jordan and made the way to Christ, just like it was promised in the Old Testament.
He was the one who baptized Jesus Christ Himself, after saying to Him: I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?(Matthew 3:14)
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
After Jesus was baptized, St. John continued to live the ascetic lifestyle and to preach about repentance. However, one day he was thrown into prison. Why did it happen?
The reason for his incarceration was because St. John preached against the ruler of Galilee, King Herod Antipas, who had married his own brother’s wife. It is interesting to note that John the Baptist was not killed because he preached about Christ, but because he called out the king’s unlawful behaviour - adultery.
When in prison, St. John preached God’s word by his very presence. Herod and Herodias were disturbed by that because they couldn’t handle his message. They couldn’t bear the truth. It was not faint, it was not a formality. Saint John lived the way he preached.
On the day of Herod’s birthday, he and his guests were eating and drinking excessively, they were taken away by their passions. Herod was so inflamed, that he even agreed to bring the head of St. John to Salome, Herodias’ daughter.
And this is exactly what happened - Saint John the Baptist was beheaded and his head was brought to Salome on a platter.
The feast of the Beheading has been celebrated from ancient times. This is why there are many beautiful icons of the feast in the Orthodox tradition.
Some icons show multiple scenes that tell the story of Saint John's imprisonment and death. The others focus on the actual execution and portray the saint on his knees, praying to God, right before being beheaded. There are also icons that only show the head of John the Baptist on a golden platter.
On the day of the feast, during the All-Night Vigil service as well as the Divine Liturgy, we sing special hymns, that remind us about what happened:
The glorious beheading of the Forerunner,
Became an act of divine dispensation,
For he preached to those in hell the coming of the Savior.
Let Herodias lament, for she entreated lawless murder,
Loving not the law of God, nor eternal life,
But that which is false and temporal.
(Kontakion of the Beheading of John the Forerunner)
What we are really celebrating on the day of the feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist is his courage to witness to the Truth, to stand up and say to the king that what he was doing was wrong. We are also celebrating St. John's ascetic lifestyle and his humble nature, that we can all learn from.
Those Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar are about to start the shortest period of fasting of the liturgical year on the 14th of August - the Dormition Fast. It lasts only for two weeks.