The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

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August 29

Today is the feast day of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Ora pro nobis.

Saint John the Baptist was called by God to be the precursor of His divine Son. In order to preserve his innocence spotless, and to improve upon the extraordinary graces which he had received in his earliest infancy, he was directed by the Holy Spirit to lead an austere and contemplative life in the wilderness. There he devoted himself to the continuous exercise of devout prayer and penance.

The tradition is that after his beheading the disciples of John the Baptist took his body and buried it at Sebaste (Samaria) near modern-day Nablus in the West Bank. His relics were certainly honoured there at the middle of the fourth century and although the tomb was desecrated by Julian the Apostate, it was restored and still even today is housed in the Nabi Yahya Mosque (“John the Baptist Mosque”) at that same place.  The story of St John's  beheading is told in Mark 6:14-29 in the context of Herod hearing about Jesus and the miraculous powers at work in him. Herod feared that this Jesus was John whom he had beheaded risen from the dead.

By Abbot Gueranger

At that time, Herod sent and apprehended John, and bound him in prison, because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, whom he had married. For John had said to Herod: “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife.” But Herodias laid snares for him, and would have liked to put him to death, but she could not. For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and protected him; and when he heard him talk, he did many things, and he liked to hear him. And a favorable day came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet to the officials, tribunes and chief men of Galilee. And Herodias' own daughter having come in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask of me what thou willest, and I will give it to thee.” And he swore to her, “Whatever thou dost ask, I will give thee, even though it be the half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “What am I to ask for?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in at once with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want thee right away to give me on a dish the head of John the Baptist.” And grieved as he was, the king, because of his oath, and his guests, was unwilling to dis-please her. But send-ing an executioner, he commanded that his head be brought on a dish, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. And his disciples, hearing of it, came and took away his body, and laid it in a tomb (Mark 6: 17-29).

Thus died the greatest of them that are born of women: without witnesses, the prisoner of a petty tyrant, the victim of the vilest passions, the wages of a dancing girl! How beautiful, as Saint John Chrysostom remarks, is this liberty of speech, when it is truly the liberty of God's Word, when it is an echo of Heaven's language! Then indeed it is a stumbling-block to tyranny, the safeguard of the world and of God's rights, the bulwark of a nation's honor as well as of its temporal and eternal interests. Death has no power over it. To the weak murderer of Saint John the Baptist, and to all who would imitate him to the end of time, a thousand tongues, instead of one, repeat in all languages and in all places: It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife.

“O great and admirable mystery!” cries out Saint Augustine. “He must increase, but I must decrease, said John, said the voice which personified all the voices that had gone before announcing the Father's Word Incarnate in His Christ. Every word, in that it signifies something, in that it is an idea, an internal word, is independent of the number of syllables, of the various letters and sounds; it remains unchangeable in the heart that conceives it, however numerous may be the words that give it outward existence, the voices that utter it, the languages, Greek, Latin and the rest, into which it may be translated. To him who knows the word, expressions and voices are useless. The prophets were voices, the Apostles were voices; voices are in the psalms, voices in the Gospel. But let the Word come, the Word Who was in the beginning, the Word Who was with God, the Word Who was God; when we shall see Him as He is, shall we hear the Gospel repeated? Shall we listen to the prophets? Shall we read the Epistles of the Apostles? The voice fails where the Word increases… Not that in Himself the Word can either diminish or increase. But He is said to grow in us, when we grow in Him. To him, then, who draws near to Christ, to him who makes progress in the contemplation of wisdom, words are of little use; of necessity they tend to fail altogether. Thus the ministry of the voice falls short in proportion as the soul progresses towards the Word; it is thus that Christ must increase and John decrease. The same is indicated by the beheading of John, and the exaltation of Christ upon the Cross; as it had already been shown by their birthdays: for, from the birth of John the days begin to shorten, and from the birth of Our Lord they begin to grow longer.”

The Feast of the Beheading of Saint John may be considered as one of the landmarks of the liturgical year. With the Greeks it was a holyday of obligation. Its great antiquity in the Latin Rite is evidenced by the mention made of it in the martyrology called Saint Jerome's, and by the place it occupies in the Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries. The Precursor's blessed death took place around the feast of the Pasch; but, that it might be more freely celebrated, this day was chosen, whereon his sacred head was discovered at Emesa.

The vengeance of God fell heavily upon Herod Antipas. Josephus relates how he was overcome by the Arabian Aretas, whose daughter he had repudiated in order to follow his wicked passions; and the Jews attributed the defeat to the murder of Saint John. Herod was deposed by Rome from his tetrarchate, and banished to Lyons in Gaul, where the ambitious Herodias shared his disgrace. As to her dancing daughter Salome, there is a tradition gathered from ancient authors, that, having gone out one winter day to dance upon a frozen river, she fell through into the water; the ice, immediately closing round her neck, cut off her head, which bounded upon the surface, thus continuing for some moments the dance of death.

From Macherontis, beyond the Jordan, where their master had suffered martyrdom, Saint John's disciples carried his body to Samaria, out of the territory of Antipas; it was necessary to save it from the profanations of Herodias, who had not spared his august head. The wretched woman did not think her vengeance complete, till she had pierced with a hairpin the tongue that had not feared to utter her shame. In the reign of Julian the Apostate, the pagans wished to complete the work of Herodias by opening the Saint's tomb at Samaria, in order to burn and scatter his remains. But the empty sepulcher continued to be a terror to the demons, as Saint Paula attested with deep emotion a few years later. Moreover, some of the precious relics were saved, and dispersed throughout the East. Later on, especially at the time of the Crusades, they were brought into the West, where many churches glory in possessing them. (2, 5)

Image: The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, artist: Caravaggio, circa 1608. (7)

Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff

  1. http://www.catholicireland.net/saintoftheday/the-beheading-of-st-john-the-baptist/
  2. http://www.salvemariaregina.info/SalveMariaRegina/SMR-161/Beheading.html
  3. http://catholicharboroffaithandmorals.com/Beheading%20of%20St.%20John%20Baptist%20popup.html
  4. http://365rosaries.blogspot.com/2010/08/august-29-martyrdom-of-saint-john.html
  5. http://www.catholictradition.org/Passion/john-baptist4.htm
  6. http://sanctoral.com/en/saints/the_beheading_of_saint_john_the_baptist.html
  7. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo_Caravaggio_021.jpg

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