Beheading of the Glorious, Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John
St. John the Baptist underwent beheading in the 32nd year after the birth of Christ. Prior to this time St. John was imprisoned by Herod Antipas because he accused him of transgressing the law by divorcing his lawful wife, the daughter of the Arabian King Arethas and for unlawful cohabitation (see Lev. 18:16; 20:21) with Herodias who was married to Herod’s brother Phillip.
We remember the scriptural account concerning the events leading to the beheading. These events are revealed through sacred scripture to give even greater praise for Saint John.
For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him,
and put [him] in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded [it] to be given [her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought [it] to her mother.
And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus. Matthew 14:3-12
A party was planned on Herod’s birthday. The niece of Herod, the daughter of the impure Herodias, so pleased Herod through her dancing during the feast and lying with him that the king with an oath promised to give her anything she asked, even up to half of his kingdom. The dancer, instructed by her own mother, then asked that he give her the head of John the Baptist on a platter. So vile is the lust that burned him that he abandoned all mercy and justice and condemned an innocent man to death.
It was written that Herod had great respect for St. John and honored him as a prophet (Mt. 14:5; Mk. 6:18-20). Poor was the faith of Herod that he let this respect be trampled by his lustful desires and vanities. It is said that Herod was troubled because of the death sentence, but for the sake of an oath made in haste and in the heat of the passions, this foolish man could not recant. The precious head of St. John was given to the maiden, who then presented it to her mother (Mt. 14:6-12; Mk. 6:21-29). Wild joy seized Herodias when she saw the head of her hateful accuser brought to her. In her malice it is said she took revenge upon this righteous man and she pierced the tongue of the Holy Forerunner with a needle and defiled the holy head by casting it in an unclean place.
Though the judgement was made in great error, nonetheless, for the sake of his guests Herod did not want to overturn the lawless oath and his foolish decree. And so it was complete. The crown of Martyrdom adorned the brow of Saint John, he who was proclaimed by the Prophets to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the Saviour of the world.
And what became of this group of evil doers. Prince Arethas, 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.
According the Gospels, 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.
The Lord Himself offered praise to his Forerunner and for this reason the Church greatly honors St. John. In the sacred temples, St. John is placed on the Templon immediately beside the Saviour, pointing out to us that this is the One of Whom he preached. Further, St. John stands by the throne of God with the Mother of God.
And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end
of commanding his twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities. Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is [he,] whosoever shall not be offended in me.
And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the
multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft [clothing] are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is [he,] of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist:
notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive [it,] this is Elias, which was for to come.
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. Matthew 11:1-15
Saint John is a model to Monastics through his austere life of prayer, fasting, and asceticism. The Church established a strict on this day to offer great honor to St. John, the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist. And recalling the circumstances of the beheading, the wrong promise given in the middle of the banquet because of the dancing,
the Church by establishing this fast calls us to emulate the life and courage of St. John, as best we are able, to overcome the passions and delights of this life to become strangers to this world, longing for the heavenly Jerusalem.
The establishment of this fast is ancient, as is the establishment of the feast itself on which sermons were already delivered in the 4th century.