Posted by: Fr Chris | August 28, 2017

Beheading of St John the Baptist – Sermon

Because of his importance, John the Baptist is the only saint other than Mary, the Mother of God, whose conception (Sept 23), birth (June 4) and death (Aug 29) are all commemorated on the Christian calendar. Along with those dates are the commemorations of finding of his head (Feb 24: First and Second times, and May 25 the Third); and the Synaxis on January 7, the day after the Baptism of the Lord (Theophany, January 6) on the Byzantine calendar. We hold him in such reverence because:

– he is the last of the prophets of the Old Testament;

– he is the first to announce the coming of the Messiah to people on earth;

-in his preaching, he fulfilled the role of Elijah and is the forerunner of the Messiah;

– he fearlessly preached the truth, even to the court of Herod, and was killed because of this;

-he preached to the dead in Sheol to announce that their deliverance was at hand in Jesus.

August 28, the vigil of the Beheading,  in the Latin rite happens to be the feast of St Edmund Arrowsmith, an English priest who was executed on this date in 1628 after 16 years of successful ministry to Catholics by offering Mass and sacraments in people’s homes and hidden chapels. He had been raised illegally in the faith in Lancashire county and was well-loved by the people he served, as John was loved by most of the Jews of his time for his preaching and offering God’s forgiveness. Like John, he was killed for upholding the marriage laws of God. He told a Catholic man and his mother that the man’s marriage to his first cousin and blessed by a minister was wrong, and that he had to get himself straightened out with the Catholic faith. Instead, the man and his mother were angry at being corrected and betrayed their pastor to the authorities, knowing it would mean that the young priest would be brutally tortured and executed in a truly barbaric manner: hanged, cut down while alive, disemboweled, dismembered and his heart cut out. This horrible torture was reserved for traitors, which, by law since Queen Elizabeth I, all Catholic priests were considered to be. That man and his mother gave over their priest to such a death because he called them to an accounting because of the man’s sin!

Herod’s court was incredibly corrupt and wicked – the provocative dance by a princess in front of male guests shows that, as such a thing was simply not done in the ancient world – or ours today. Herod was king – he did not have to stick to his oath – but he had no spine when it came to his illegal wife, and so he had John silenced and thus neither he nor his illicit wife had to be disturbed any longer.

In this story icon, the emaciated prophet humbly submits to the tyrant’s sword; in the left rear a steward carries his head to the waiting princess, while in Heaven the angels encourage John in his suffering.

A prophet is not someone telling the future, but someone who God uses to call a society or a church to repentance and conversion. Being a prophet is not easy. Prophets are often not honored in their lifetimes. And in these times where being politically correct is enforced more and more by law or public pressure, someone who takes the prophetic stance can not only lose their job but also be harassed by opponents who claim that their truth is the only truth – thus we have seen bishops charged in Canada with hate crimes for preaching against gay marriage, people in the US heavily fined for not providing cakes or photographs to customers engaged in activities which they reject. Persecution or violence becomes the answer all too often – John was not the first prophet to die at the hands of a ruler for upholding God’s law, and Edmund Arrowsmith was not the last.

Image result for st john the baptist kenmore

My home parish, St John the Baptist, in Kenmore, New York 

John is a witness – and being a witness to what God’s law is, and what the Church teaches, was not even always popular in medieval Europe when everyone belonged to one Church. It’s hard, and scary, and it’s easier to just melt into the background. We all face challenges in daily life – being a prophet may mean picking the unpopular student to be on my team, or it may mean something life-threatening. Whatever the challenge, God will guide us, if we only let Him do so. John answered the presence of God even in his mother’s womb when he leapt for joy in the presence of the unborn Jesus – let us ask him tonight to strengthen  us in our daily lives and to be God’s faithful servants above all else.


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