Today, according to the Gregorian Calendar, is the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Kept as a solemn liturgical celebration and fast day among many Eastern Christians, this day—and one might argue the Baptist’s entire earthly ministry—has lost a bit of its import in the West. In his book The Friend of the Bridegroom, the Russian Orthodox theologian Fr. Sergius Bulgakov threw shade on the West’s elevation of St. Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the apparent expense of keeping St. John central in its liturgical and spiritual heritage. Although it is unlikely that many Latin Catholics would entirely follow Bulgakov’s assessment, particular since it smacks more than a bit of knee-jerk Orthodox anti-Catholicism, it is true that the Forerunner of Christ does not factor considerably in contemporary Catholic reflections on sainthood, witness, and martyrdom. Why that is so I cannot say. What I can say is that perhaps now more than ever, the Baptist deserves to be at the forefront of our minds.
Let me be clear. St. John did not mince words, nor did he retreat from the truth, even at the cost of his own life. In the face of public scandal and sin, he stood firm with the Law of God over and against earthly powers. While the Byzantine hymnography for today’s commemoration of the Baptist’s decollation tends to focus on the sinfulness of Herod Antipas and his vile stepdaughter Salome, there are numerous references to the Forerunner’s unrelenting preaching, both on earth and to the souls in Hades awaiting the coming of Christ, the Conqueror of Death. Any man with ears to hear cannot walk away from today’s cycle of liturgical services without a firm appreciation for St. John’s steadfastness in all things.
And where, might I ask, are we to find a St. John in our own day? At a time with hierarchs, priests, and laity cower from muttering any word which may run afoul secular-liberal “morality” and the tyranny of “tolerance,” the Baptist looks like a legend, or an ideal which we can no longer strive toward for fear of reprisal. Maybe some are even tempted to think that there were other, undocumented, reasons for the Forerunner’s death. Maybe it wasn’t because he spoke out against public sin, particularly public sexual sin. Perhaps he died because he held to some wrongheaded political beliefs or supported that “revolutionary” from Nazareth or forgot to pay his taxes, etc. Let there please be an intramundane explanation for his decapitation! Do not tell me this holy man met his end because he failed to do the one thing all of us crave to do every single day of our lives: capitulate.
Those illumined by the light of faith cannot set aside why St. John met his end any more than they can deny that all sins of the flesh, including open and unrepented adultery, are worthy of condemnation. They cannot deny that the Forerunner of Christ was, fully and faithfully, a man of God whose tongue was gifted to him for one reason and one reason alone: to speak the truth without reservation. Does this unsettle us? Does this make us uncomfortable? If so, then shame, for the life and heroic death of St. John the Baptist should inspire everyone, from the highest authority in the Church to the lowliest layman, to never waver in their witness, even at the highest cost.
August 29, 2016
The best essay I’ve come across which attempts to “elevate” the Forerunner in the West, as it were, is Lawrence Goodall’s “None Greater Born of a Woman: the Theological Figure of John the Baptist,” *Communio* Fall 1997. I have often gone back to it over the years as it richly repays reading.
August 29, 2016
Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll try and track it down.
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