The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner
Commemorated on August 29
St. John the Baptist
Parish talk by Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh
31 October, 1972
St. John the Baptist. He is the man who recognizes in Jesus of Nazareth the Lamb of God, God Incarnate, the Man of Sorrows. He is the one who in God’s own name declares to those who surround Him who He is, and who prepares His way. The greatness of St John the Baptist lies, perhaps more than in anything, in the fact that he so loved, so believed, so completely wanted to serve God, who had come into His world to save it, that his whole service can be put in the words he uses himself: “ I must diminish, I must decrease, that He may increase.”
The beginning of the Gospel according to St Mark defines him in the words of the Prophet Isaiah: a voice that shouts in the desert. He was so perfectly one with the message he had to deliver, he was so identified with the will and the mind of God whom he had to convey to people, that he was perceived by the seer not even as a prophet proclaiming God’s will, but as God’s own voice resounding through a man. The man had become perfectly flexible, perfectly obedient, perfectly transparent to the message he had to convey, he was the message; the message had become him. The Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament say somewhere that a prophet is one with whom God shares his designs. To a certain extent, as in every prophet, it was true for him, but what he had seen of the divine mind and the divine will he proclaimed with such perfection that nothing was left but the message. Of him perhaps more than of anyone one might say that the words of Christ, “Let your light so shine before all men that seeing your good deeds they should give glory to your Father who is in heaven”, were fulfilled.
John the Baptist seems to have been completely transparent to the message. And yet how vivid a picture we get of him from the Gospels! But this picture only enhances his message – not in the sense that it makes it more dramatic, not in the sense that what men see attracts their attention to the message – but they can see a man who has so completely given himself up to the vision and to the listening, so completely renounced himself, that there is practically nothing left of him. A very young man, according to the prophecy, he leaves the company of other men, he retires into the desert, and there he allows God to mould him and to destroy in him everything which is not His – nothing but a frame and the chords which the hand of God will touch and which will resound in powerful, yet harmonious melody. His presence itself witnesses to the fact that he has no other concern on earth but God, that of all his life he has made an offering, that nothing is left of him but what can be used by God and what can worship God, that is, give God the place that is His, the only place. And yet his message is not hard, rough, although it is as ruthless as love. His message is addressed to the people who are there, and to each and to all he speaks according to their condition. He does not claim from them more to begin with than what they can do immediately: he expects justice from the judge, integrity from the soldier; he expects everyone in his place to fill this place honourably and only then can one expect that he who has redressed his life may grow into a new measure of life. One might have expected from this great ascetic, from this man who knew nothing of the life of the world, to be a great deal more radical and violent in his claims – or rather, in God’s claim on men. And yet, no. Reread what he says in the Gospels to all those who came to him: Repent, and then be worthy of the function which is yours in life. But the operative word is “repent”. This is also the word which Christ will use when He begins His earthly ministry – a word which in ancient languages means: change your mind, change your heart, turnaround, redirect your life. It means first of all a reappraisal of all the values which a man had before, all the gods he worshipped and served before. It is a revaluation which establishes a radically new scale of values. And then against this scale of values, a new evaluation of what life had been not only an intellectual evaluation, but an evaluation in which the heart of man is involved: because unless, as St Mark the ascetic puts it, a man does God’s will in his heart, he will never be able to fulfill it in action. It is a heart-searching, painful, excruciating reappraisal of all one’s life, of all one’s relationships, of all that was done, said desired, hoped for accomplished or left undone – a new appreciation of failure and of success, the discovery that what is great in the eyes of man is abhorrent, at times, to God. And then it means a move of the will, an act of determination that will be the beginning of a new life.
Centuries later St Seraphim of Sarov, on being asked what makes the difference between being a sinner that walks to his damnation and the saints, answered: “Nothing but determination.”.. Four centuries later again an ascetic of the Syrian desert was asked: “How can I know that God has forgiven me?” And the answer was: “When you discover that you are dead to the sins you have rejected by an act of will” – that is when they are no longer an object of desire and when the memory of them is no longer an occasion of delight or pleasure…
This is also Christ’s own teaching. If you remember the parable of the sheep and goats, the criterion of Christ’s judgement is: have you been human? You who wish to enter into the realm of God, have you been merciful, compassionate, brotherly? If you have, the door is open for you to enter from what is truly human to what is divine. But if you have not been truly human, then the door is shut. That is also where St John the Baptist begins his preaching. He is the one to whom it was given to recognize and to proclaim Christ. When the Lord came to the banks of Jordan, he saw Him coming, and declared that this was the Lamb of God that was taking upon Himself the sins of the world….
And then came the time of his death. He was taken by Herod, he was cast into prison, and he knew that his time was running short. He was now faced with a vision of all his life which he could rehearse and reappraise and rethink, and he was facing his death. And then he met, I think, the ultimate and the great trial of his life. The Gospel tells us that he sent to the Lord two of his disciples with the question: “Art thou He who was to come, or should we expect another one?” This question sounds simple and yet if you try to think yourself into the situation of St John the Baptist, you may perceive how tragic this question was: “Art thou?” He was the man who at a sign given by God recognized the Saviour and proclaimed Him to the people, who had prepared His way, who had chosen to decrease that He might increase and to lose everything that Christ might gain everything. And now suddenly he asks a question which really means: Have I made a mistake? If Thou truly art He whom we expected, then there is nothing to regret in my life, my youth, lost to the joys of youth, parched and scorched in the desert in tremendous loneliness and spiritual endeavour, the alienation in which I have found myself, alone always in the desert of human presences, always meeting men with the judgement of God, calling them to hope, but at a price: a stranger to them, never one of them. Then also death is worthwhile because it will be the last step in this progress in which he decreased until he no longer was and Christ alone was. But if Jesus is not the man whom the prophets announced and the people expected and he declared to be the Son of God, the Lamb, then all his life was wasted and he was betrayed not only by religion, but by God Himself, who had promised a sign, given a sign, and this sign proved untrue. The last anguish of the greatest man of the Old Testament. And Christ does not answer his question: to the prophet He gives back the words of another prophet: “Tell John what you see, the lame walk, the blind see, the poor proclaim the god news.” And He adds: “Blessed is he who does not fall a prey to temptation because of me.”
This is the only message which St John the Baptist receives: You have been a man of faith because you belong to the realm of faith, the Old Testament. You must fulfill all the greatness of faith, in your life and in your death. Believe; that is, stand firm in that certainty of the invisible which has been the rock on which you have stood throughout your life. And John dies. He has decreased to the last; he has been a man of faith to the last; he has died in a sense on the threshold of the Kingdom without having walked into it, because he stood there that others might reach it.
These are the features which, I believe, are at the core of the various services of the Church in which we magnify, praise and we learn from St John the Baptist. …He is the greatest man born of woman; he is now in the glory of the Kingdom. Throughout his life, for the sake of other men, he accepted to remain an outsider. This is perhaps the most glorious and the most tragic, the greatest vision of man which we can have, not only in the Old but even in the New Testament.
Apolytikion Saint John the Forerunner. Second Tone
The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for thee, O Forerunner; for thou hast proved to be truly even more venerable than the Prophets, since thou was granted to baptize in the running waters Him Whom they proclaimed. Wherefore, having contested for the truth, thou didst rejoice to announce the good tidings even to those in Hades: that God hath appeared in the flesh, taking away the sin of the world and granting us great mercy.
Spec. Mel.: O most glorious wonder.
Thou art the most compassionate of all mankind, * full of divine grace, * O ever-glorious Prophet, * making glad all those who come unto thee in faith, * sweetening our senses of both soul and body, * and effacing from us the bitterness of maladies and afflictions, * of attacks from the evil one, * and of all the soul destroying passions.
Irmos: For the sake of Thy love for mankind,
Like a dove that foretells unto the world the coming of spring thou also in the truest of words announced the coming of Christ, wherefore we bless thee, O ever-glorious Forerunner.
O Thou who departed into the wilderness to lead an irreproachable life, do thou, O Forerunner, by thy divine intercessions summon my mind made desolate with many and varied transgressions.
Irmos: The youths of Abraham
O Forerunner John, by thy watchful supplications unto the Deliverer of all subdue every storm of the enemy raised against those who in faith have recourse to thee.
Irmos: Eve by her disobedience brought about the curse
My strength and my song is Christ the Lord; do thou, O blessed Forerunner, entreat Him to fortify me against the passions and all attacks of the demons, and vouchsafe me to fulfill the divine will, that I may ever bless thee with love.
O divine Forerunner, thou hast appeared as a beautiful turtle-dove, as a sweetly-spoken swallow, announcing Christ the Divine Spring; I implore thee do thou entreat Him to deliver me from the soul-corrupting wintry storm of sin.