FR. JOHN STEFFAR0 We keep a memory of St. John the Baptist
The Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast Day of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist this Sunday.
The church considers him to be the last of the Old Testament prophets. Why celebrate such a vile event in the life of St. John? To understand the significance of this event, we are reminded that St. John the Baptist was called by God to be the precursor of his divine son, Jesus Christ. To preserve his virtuous life and to improve upon the extraordinary graces that 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.
When St. John was 30 years old, the faithful prophet of the Lord began his ministry. Clothed with the garments of penance, he exhorted all to wash away their iniquities with repentance and tears of sincere compunction. When Jesus Christ came to St. John to be baptized by him in the Jordan River, St. John proclaimed him to be the Messiah.
Vocalizing for God
St. John is recognized as a true herald of the Most High God, and his voice was, as it were, a trumpet sounding from heaven to summon all men to avert the divine judgments. Again, souls were exhorted by him to prepare themselves to reap the benefit of the mercy offered them.
The events of the beheading and cruel death of St. John are recounted in St. Matthew 14:1-12. St. John had publicly reprimanded Herod for taking his brother's wife as his own, so Herod had him imprisoned. Although Herod really wanted John dead, he feared the many people who believed John was a prophet.
During his riotous birthday party, Herod was so pleased with the dancing of his wife's daughter Salome that he promised her anything she wanted. Her mother prompted her to say, "The head of John the Baptist on a platter." Even though Herod regretted his promise, he had to abide by it because his guests had heard him. Therefore, he commanded that John be beheaded and that the head be given to Salome, who in turn gave it to her mother.
Even in death ...
Tradition has it that the mouth of the severed head of the prophet of repentance opened just once more to utter these words: "Herod, thou should not have the wife of Philip, thy brother." Even in death, St. John was preaching about repentance.
So that Orthodox Christians could reflect on this event, we keep this day as a strict fast day, reminding us that we are to live a different lifestyle than that of Herod and to feel sorrow over the violent death of the great prophet.
For our personal devotion and yours, I would like to share this prayer: O Savior, St. John was zealous in his preaching about the need to repent because he wanted everyone to be reconciled with you. So strong was his conviction that he could not keep silent, even when he knew his honesty came with a cost. I ask him to intercede for me as I identify the sins in my world. Help me to speak up when you want me to get involved -- in helping our society to elect holy men to political office, in challenging others to let go of their attachments to money and possessions for the sake of the needy and in fighting evil wherever it abounds. St. John, pray for me. Amen.
XFather John Steffaro is an Orthodox priest of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church, Campbell.