Encomium on the Beheading of the Great Forerunner – 331 August 2020
According to the Gospel, his disciples then came, took away his body and buried it (Matth. 14, 13). Those of you who love history, look at how the burial of this righteous man is depicted and gives the lie to those enemies of the holy icons, who are also enemies of the truth. Fix the story in your minds and draw useful conclusions. How they took the saint, bound in heavy chains, from the prison How the executioner, like a wild animal, raised the sword against the holy head. How, after the beheading, the myrrh-exuding head was offered to the raving Herodias. And also how the sacred body was buried by the hands of his disciples, who all stood there, in tears, with a pain that tore at their souls. How one embraced the feet of the saint, another tried to fit the head back on to the motionless body and another sang funeral hymns while censing the body.
Now I’m there in my mind’s eye and can see the funeral of the righteous man taking place in an atmosphere of peace, as is mentioned in the Prophet Isaiah [57, 1-2: “See how the just man has perished and no one takes it to heart, and righteous men are taken away and no-one considers it. For the righteous man has been removed by injustice. His burial shall be in peace”]. I envision that angelic face, whose eyes have set like two shining suns and on which all the beauty of his soul has been imprinted. Without any fleeting and earthly breath, but full of the overpowering fragrance of divine grace. I kiss those holy hands, which never touched sin and the finger that pointed people to Christ, Who took upon Himself the sin of the whole world. I fall down before those beautiful feet, which told the good news to people and through which the way of the presence of the Lord was prepared. Bring me, so that I may reverence it, the honourable chain with which the most precious and angel-like of men was bound. Bring me the venerable platter on which the revered head- more precious than gold and jewels- was placed. Had I been there, I wouldn’t have omitted to pay my respects to the murderous sword which sliced through the holy neck, nor would I have hesitated to cover with kisses the ground where the treasure was laid, in the certainty that this, too, would bring me divine grace. Blessed grave and joyous tomb-stone, that cover the thrice-blessed corpse and wrap the body more precious than a mass of emeralds and pearls.
So at this scene there were the visible company of his disciples and an invisible host of angels, praising, glorifying and hymning John, bearing to eternal joy him who lived as a bodiless angel and foretold the coming of the Messiah. He who was a genuine friend of the Lord, who guided the Church to the celestial Bridegroom, the undimmed lamp of the ineffable light, the living voice of God the Word, who was superior to the prophets, greater than any man ever born of woman. The burial of this righteous man, then, was peaceful, as we’ve described it, a harbinger of joy and salvation to the whole world.
So did the insane Herod manage to escape punishment for his profanity for the rest of his life on earth? Of course not. On the contrary, because of this misdeed, all his subjects rose up against him and he was deposed. In this way, God wanted to frighten and admonish later kings, to prevent them committing similar crimes. But to return to our theme, let us acclaim this day as is proper.
Today, John the Forerunner is praised because he sacrifices his head for the truth, and Herod the transgressor is ridiculed and mocked. Today, John the Forerunner is lauded by all for his stern rebuke, and the insane Herod is dishonoured through his adultery. Today, the head of John the Forerunner is offered as a sacred sacrifice on a platter, and the adulteress Herodias, against her will, receives eternal condemnation. Today, the blood of John the Forerunner is shed because he observed the divine law and he who opposed the Baptist by breaking the law is rightly driven out. Today, because of forthrightness towards Herod, John the Forerunner is beheaded for upholding righteousness.
This is the way the kings of the earth learn not to put away their lawful wives and they condemn him who did so. Today, John the Baptist plants a landmark in the ground and urges all men to be satisfied with their lawful wife and to go no further than that. Today, John the Forerunner descends into Hell and the dead receive the glad tidings of the presence of Christ. Today, the heavens rejoice over the decapitation of John the Forerunner, who was sacrificed for God’s justice; while people on earth celebrate with hymns of thanksgiving. And in my view, the Honourable Forerunner is watching us from the heavens and rewarding with divine gifts those who praise him with hymns. Among the choir of the prophets, like the morning star, he rises and illumines the firmament of the Church. Among the apostles, before them and more than them he shines as a sun among suns. Among the martyrs, he is distinguished for his miracles, like a star-decked sky. Among the righteous he stands out for the many trials he suffered, for the sake of justice, and he who spread joy throughout the world is elevated higher than the cedars of Lebanon.
Because if, according to Saint Luke (2, 10) many people rejoiced at his birth, the joy on this the day of his martyr’s death should be equivalent. We have been found worthy to celebrate it, all of us, priests, hermits, coenobites and lay people, because everyone has a share in the joy his message provides. And may his intercessions be even more with us, who live in this holy monastery, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
To Whom is due glory and power, together with the Father and the All-Holy and Life-Giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the unending ages of ages. Amen.