Homily by Father James Doyle - August 29, 2009
The memory of the righteous man is accompanied by praises, but for you, Forerunner, the Lord's testimony is enough. You were the greatest of the prophets, for you were worthy to baptize in the waters, Christ, whom the prophets announced. You fought courageously for the truth, happy to announce, even to those in the kingdom of death, the coming of God in human flesh who takes away the sin of the world and gives us his great mercy.
- Troparion in the Second Tone
Why this hymn of St. John the Baptist this morning?
The Church year ends this Monday and begins anew on September 1. After the joy of Transfiguration and the Dormition of the Ever Virgin Mary, we come to this last feast, commemorated on August 29, the death: the beheading of St. John the Baptist. What shall we say about it? Indeed, what MUST we say about it?
As you hear or read this account from the Gospel, you can't keep from exclaiming: senseless! horrible! cruel! Yet, this scene is repeated all throughout human history, perhaps even daily. Even this morning, somewhere else on Earth, this scene is being repeated. Whoever dares and risks to speak out against tyranny and sin risks his neck, risks reprisal. Church history is filled with such scenes; St. Chrysostom confronting tyranny with God's truth, calling for justice, and those in power destroy him. This description of St. John's martyrdom shows the cruelty involved when the powerful move to shut up the critical conscience of the prophets of all times. It's a warning of what Jesus, Himself, and all Jesus' disciples, down through the ages, can hope for if they sincerely entrust their lives to the Kingdom of God. And just as, certainly, Jesus' promise resounds:
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This day of St. John the Baptist is not to be passed over in haste. St. Ambrose warns us: It is important to understand; who is involved? who killed? why? how? We will see how many crimes in this one wicked act.
The Baptizer, the greatest of the prophets, the connector of Old and New Testaments, the voice in the wilderness (desert) calling people to go back to God, the Road Preparer of the Messiah, born miraculously, filled with the Holy Spirit of God from his birth, the second Elijah, who baptized Christ and pointed him out; "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," by taking it on himself. He seals with his own blood the truth of his ministry, the victim of a drunken petty kinglet, a revengeful queen, and a dancing girl!
Who killed him?
Herod; a lawbreaker, a lustful, adulterous, drunken, and petty king, who, at first, respected this holy and just man.
Incited by whom?
By hate-filled, revengeful, Queen Herodias.
Because he had confronted sin and power; "According to God's Law, you can't take your brother's wife while your brother is still alive." Is anyone exempt from God's Law? No! Even the king must obey God's Law. Israel is a unique nation, because it was established by God for His people. The kings of Israel are different and set apart from the pagan counter-parts. The kings of Israel are called by God to uphold His righteousness and to personally follow every precept of God's Law.
Can you place yourself there, and consider. What did John, the Forerunner, think as he sat in Herod's prison?, as he heard the noise of the banquet upstairs? After all, Kings on their birthdays do acts of mercy. The steps on the stairs; the king's decided to free me!
The door bursts open!
Instead of freedom and mercy, a violent, horrible death by beheading. His head; the toy of a dancing girl and Queen Herodias. So died the greatest of those born of a woman, save Jesus, our Lord! No witnesses, the murder committed in the prison of a petty tyrant. The victim of the vilest passions. His head; the toy of a dancing girl and her wicked mother.
The Church year ends, a new one begins. Christmas (The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ), Pascha, Dormition! And yet at the end: the death, persecution, opposition! This is our world's reality. This is the way things are. Christ came to change that. You can risk persecution, if you take Him seriously. You can help Christ change that, if you help Him return sinners to repentance and grace. You can help Christ by teaching the nations of the world not to practice the works of the flesh; these being adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such others like it; teaching therefore, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. Lead them instead to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Shall we bring to remembrance what these fruits are; they are: unselfish love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Let us teach one another and ourselves to crucify the flesh; walking therefore in the Holy Spirit of God. Let us call to mind what the Great Apostle Paul has said to the Corinthians: "Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." Shall we risk teaching the world the righteoussness of Christ and baptize in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? We must risk all to help Christ change all that ushers in the cruelty and suffering found in the world. Thus we ensure for posterity, the Kingdom of God, which is our inheritance when we walk in the Holy Spirit of God.
And so we spend this August 29, the day of John's death, seriously in fasting, in horror at Herod's bloody banquet. As the year ends, we examine ourselves. Seriously, we pray for those whom God has called to preach and teach the truth. We pray for those whose lives are endangered by their ministry of the Gospel. We even pray for ourselves, tempted to abandon the Gospel, when it's inconvenient. And Paul who was also beheaded in prison, is there to encourage and empower us:
"For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."
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