Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Beheading of the Glorious Prophet and Forerunner John

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Tonight we commemorate the Beheading of the Glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. This feast compares to Great and Holy Friday of Holy Week on which we see that the Son of God who came into the world full of grace and truth, was rejected and put to a most cruel death by those who despised truth and found it to be an unwelcome intrusion into their lives of falsehood. In tonight’s Feast St. John the Baptist is also put to a terrible death merely for speaking the obvious truth to those who did not wish to hear it.

The wicked Herodias deeply resented the saint’s rebuke of her adulterous relationship with Herod, the brother of her husband. With the blind hatred of those who are given over to the love of evil, she utterly refused the grace of repentance and instead eventually found a way to have the Baptist murdered and his blessed head mocked as the bloody centerpiece of her depraved social gathering.

Thus the two greatest men in the history of our poor, sad world were both put to horrible deaths for the same exact reason, namely that they came bringing the light of truth into a world of men who much prefer the darkness of falsehood and sin.

As we know, Jesus praised John highly, saying that of those born of women there is none greater than he. Let us understand that John was not merely called “great” but the “greatest” precisely because he was a man of absolute truth, who bore witness to the One who is Truth perfectly, not only in his preaching but in fullness of his life. In John there was no deceit or falsehood; no conflicting motives or wayward desires. Filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, John was born into the world as one who by word and deed together could bear an unsullied witness to the truth, and thus could serve as a faithful guide pointing all of mankind to Jesus, the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.

With the celebration of this blessed Feast it is fitting for us to pray to the Baptist, that by his intercessions we too might become lovers of truth. As the intercessions of the Theotokos are coveted by those seeking purity of soul, so it is right for seekers of truth to ask for the help of St. John that they might also be led into the fullness of truth and gain his courage to stand for it at whatever cost. Our world has certainly not become more enlightened with the passage of time, or more tolerant of those who come bearing God’s truth. Perhaps more than ever, we are a people who need John’s intercessions to help us face the coming darkness and the perilous times that lay ahead.

I’m sure we are aware that many of the world’s nations consider themselves “Post-Christian” in orientation, as the influence of Christianity has declined to be temporarily replaced by secular humanism. It’s my personal opinion that this situation won’t last for long as nature abhors a religious vacuum. Already the religion of Islam is making tremendous gains in Western Europe and many of its cultures are on the brink of dramatic change within a generation or two at most. Our nation, increasingly guided by secular progressives, is also engaged in the steady removal of every influence traceable to its so-called “Judeo-Christian” foundation. God only knows what awaits us if this movement succeeds, though I doubt if it will resemble what even its authors hope for. If some people today feel oppressed by Christians who allegedly “seek to impose their morality on others,” just wait until Islam possibly becomes the dominant religion of America. They will wish for the “good old days” at that point!

Nevertheless, the decline of Christianity in this country is not primarily the fault of secular progressives, but of the Christians themselves. It is the Christians who have mostly stood by while the leaders of their various denominations watered-down the faith in an effort to “fit in” with the changing culture. Christians are supposed to season and transform the cultures they find themselves in, but the exact opposite has been allowed to happen here. The salt of American Christianity has lost much of its flavor, and will soon be trampled underfoot by men. Far from becoming less religious, America is simply becoming less Christian. Whatever the religion of the future may be, is not something that I am looking forward to seeing.

It is important to remember that nations and governments that protect the rights of Christians are historically something of an anomaly in this fallen world. More frequently the people of God have found themselves persecuted, either by countries that flat out reject Christianity, or by those that nationalize schismatic or heretical forms of it to the exclusion of Orthodoxy. The sudden emergence and spread of genuine Orthodox Christianity in America at a time when its other forms of Christianity are waning is an interesting development, and perhaps a sign that God requires yet one more people who will witness to His truth in these latter days by the shedding of their own blood.

Orthodox Christians have traditionally been grist for the martyr’s mill, and although I sincerely hope that each one of us will be allowed to live long, happy, and prosperous lives, we should at least consider the fact that this is by no means guaranteed to us. It is good for us to feel a certain tension and lack of ease with this world, and to cultivate the sense that we are strangers and aliens in a land increasingly hostile to our faith and presence here.

Few things illustrate this better than the remembrance of the holy martyrs. Thus on this commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, I ask us to reconsider and recommit our lives to Jesus Christ our Lord. How often the blessed scriptures encourage us to do exactly this, and to rouse ourselves constantly against our sleepy devotion and selfish ways! Let us renew our efforts to embrace Holy Orthodoxy more completely, to deny ourselves what is false and wrong, and to be conformed to the truth of the gospel. Our world will do all that it can to undermine this in our lives and in the lives of our children. Let therefore labor all the more to stir one another up to faith and love in Christ, even as the world around us grows steadily darker.

Through the intercessions of the Glorious Forerunner and Baptist John, O Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 8/29/2007 11:27 AM , Anonymous Kevin Allen said...

Thanks for this homily!

I am trying to work something out!

You refer to Our Lord's statement that of men born of a woman, there is none greater than John (the Baptist). I assume we must take this to be dogmatic statement(about St John being the greatest human) since Our Lord said it and it made its way into the Holy Gospel!

I have also seen in some of our devotional (not dogmatic) materials (although now of course I can't put my hands on them!) prayers-hymns where the Theotokos (Mary, the Virgin) is extolled (again devotionally) as being "after Christ" our only hope, etc. Other prayers seem to elevate the Theotokos to a "position" perhaps even higher than that of St John, whom again the Lord Himself calls the greatest of humans, etc.

We agree and understand the Theotokos was-is human, born of the seed of Joachim and Anna. How then do we reconcile her elevation to that which could be seen as higher than that of St John, and therefore (perhaps) a contradiction to the Holy Scriptures?

At 8/29/2007 12:23 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a thought here, I could be way off...

Immediately after Christ proclaimed that the Forerunner was the greatest of all men, He immediately stated that whosoever is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John. I think it is fairly safe to say that the Theotokos is far from the least in the Kingdom, and therefore I don't think there's a dogmatic contradiction here.

At 8/29/2007 12:57 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Hi Kevin,

Without access to patristic quotes on this matter immediately available to me, I can offer my own opinion only.

I believe our Lord was demonstrating His perfect and divine humility in this statement regarding John. First of all, if we really wish to be dogmatic, we would have to say that no one among men born of women was greater than Jesus Christ. But He graciously deferred that honor to the Baptist in recognition of his total devotion to God, his pure witness to truth, and his heroic asceticism and emptying of himself (“I must decrease that He might increase”) Although it is perhaps astonishing that the incarnate God might offer such high praise to any of his lowly creatures, Jesus did so as a demonstration that the Spirit of God dwelt mightily in John, and so that others might imitate his life and also find praise from their Creator.

John was already a public figure, and so Jesus praised him publicly to put the seal of God’s approval on him.

If we want to nit-pick, we might say that Mary was obviously not “a man born of women,” but I tend to think that Jesus did not mention her in the same public way as he did John because Mary’s life of devotion was much more “of the heart” and known only to her closest companions. To praise His Mother in the same public way would not make sense to most, and might even appear arrogant. Let us not forget that Mary also still bore the stigma of conceiving Jesus out of wedlock in the minds of many. Only her husband and eventually the Lord’s closest disciples knew the truth. In time Jesus demonstrated His Mother’s greatness and holiness by taking her up bodily into heaven after her repose. But again He did this, as it were, in secret, revealing it only to the Twelve who witnessed it directly. Sometimes the truths of God are concealed from the many and revealed to only the few. The true praise of the Blessed Theotokos is thus offered by those who accept the faithful and true witness of the apostles, as preserved for us within the Church.

At 8/29/2007 4:03 PM , Anonymous Kevin Allen said...

Thanks to you both for your comments. I recently interviewed Fr Damascene (Christensen) the author of "Fr Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works". I asked him why Fr Seraphim prayed to the Mother of God for her intercessions before he was (even) Orthodox (as the book recounts). Fr Damascene said, "It's a mystery, as our piety of the Mother of God, to some extent, is a mystery of the Church". Guess this is one that -hard as I sometimes try - I may not get fully buttoned down!

At 8/29/2007 6:48 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

If by "buttoned down" we mean "to rationally understand a Mystery well enough to believe it" then yes, we will never button down the Divine Mysteries, and thanks be to God for that! A pure heart, illumined by God, precedes all true spiritual revelation of the deeper things, and our comprehension of them. It is fallen men and demons who seek to know by the intellect alone, and such knowledge rarely benefits them.

Men such as us, who lack the purity of the Theotokos, do our best when we constantly beg her intercessions that we might first live in a manner worthy of divine llumination, and then be graced by God to receive whatever He may choose to reveal to us. It is God who gives insight and knowledge as He pleases.

If God does not grant us a sufficient "working knowledge" of this or that Mystery to feel completely comfortable with it, that may either be a sign that we are not adequately pure of heart, or else that God Himself has chosen to conceal such knowledge from us that we might continue by faith alone, in order that our faith itself might be praised in the world to come.

It is God who gives such knowledge to men, and only as He sees fit. This is the wisdom gained by the Righteous Job, and it is good for us to be reminded of it.

At 8/30/2007 6:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fr. Mike - You have eloquently yet succinctly put to words some of the things I have been pondering of late. I am a better person for your writing. Your friend, BQ688

At 9/04/2007 9:57 PM , Blogger Grace said...

Fr. Mike,
Thanks for a *very* good, and thought-provoking message. I had been turning over the witness of the Forerunner as well, and, funnily enough (but not funny-ha-ha), was struck by the same point: the tremendous risk of telling the truth, and how little of it people want to hear these days.


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