Monday, September 1, 2008

The 10th Sunday of Pentecost

August 24, 2008

The 10th Sunday of Pentecost

This Friday is the feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. Most often this feast falls in the middle of the week, it is ignored by us and overlooked by us. It’s importance is not entirely internalized. It would probably be a great feast if it were not that the church had not at some point determined that these would either be feasts of our Lord or of the Theotokos.

Well, you might ask, “What is so special about the beheading of St. John the Baptist?” I mean, we have many, many martyrs and we celebrate the day of their martyrdom with solemnity, but why is this day more solemn, more important? It is because of the many lessons that are taught to us by this particular event that happened in the history of the church. This particular event, this particular happening, this particular act of a tyrant teaches at least half a dozen specific lessons to us. It offers us an example, as well, of how God works in all things to bring good out of evil for those who love him.

We know that St. John the Baptist was the cousin of our Lord. He was conceived six months before the conception of our Lord Jesus Christ, and born six months before our Lord was, because he was the last of the Old Testament prophets. Of him, it was said by our Lord, that he was the greatest man born of woman; he was the greatest human being, our Lord Jesus Christ who is God aside. Also, John’s vocation was to go before the face of the Lord to prepare his way. So he stands as a peculiar bridge – he is at once the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the NT evangelizers. He completes the old covenant. He points to the Lord and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He gathers together in himself the significance of all of those who had gone before prophesying about God’s deliverance of the kingdom. The Lord even said of John that in his appearance the tradition was fulfilled that Elijah would return before the Messiah came, because our Lord said that John came in the spirit of Elijah.

He preached in the wilderness of Judea and of Galilee, and he preached along the Jordan River. People came to hear him from all the cities and villages. He had so many disciples that practically everyone had heard John, and many, many had been baptized by him. Baptism for the Jews, immersion, was first and foremost the way that a Gentile was converted to Judaism - being immersed three times in the mikvah, the ritual bath, and then being circumcised if he were a man. The rabbis said that it was the immersion that made one a Jew. It was emblematic of conversion to Judaism, of a washing. But John told the Jewish people that they needed to be immersed, they needed to be washed in preparation for the coming of the kingdom of God. And he also told them to be baptized for remission of sins. Sins had never been capable of forgiveness in the old covenant – that is to say, sins committed intentionally, with knowledge, with a high hand. Accidental sins – ritual impurity, even sins of passion – could be forgiven by sacrifice, but intentional, premeditated sins had no forgiveness in the old covenant. John baptized for the remission of sins, so much so that the early Christian writers said that although John was not able to give the Holy Spirit, so he was not able to fill those who he baptized with God’s spirit. He was able to wash away sins in a way analogous to, in fact in the precise way, in which Christian baptism washes away sins. John was given grace by anticipation to empty people of their guilt; he simply could not fill them with the power of God for it was not yet given. It rested upon him and he could not impart it.

And as John preached, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he looked at the mob that was coming to him and he said, “You generation of vipers! Who told you you could escape the anger to come? If you want to show that you are repentant, live in a way worthy of repentance.”

And he said to the soldiers, “Do not participate in massacre. Be content with your pay. Don’t rob people.”

He told each estate to live in accordance with Justice and mercy, for he said, “The axe is set to the root of the tree and every tree that does not bring forth good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire.”

As John was preaching, Jesus came to him and we know that he baptized our Lord of whom he said, “I am not worthy to unloose the sandals from his feet.”

And then John, having pointed at Jesus and said, Tthis is the lamb of God,” having testified that he saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove upon him, having announced that the Messiah was at hand, said, “I must grow lesser as he grows greater.”

So John, from that point on, began to diminish in his importance within the economy of salvation. How difficult it must have been for any human being who had a massive following, to step aside and hand over all of his disciples to someone else. How judgmental most of us would have been if we had had a following of millions of believers who hung on our every word, and then a guy came along who couldn’t even hold onto the five thousand whom he had fed with the loaves and fishes in the wilderness; who ultimately ended up with only 12 followers, and one of them betrayed him. Plus the women who followed him. John began even to lose that divine inspiration that had rested temporarily upon him. For, having declared our Lord to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, he then had to send his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you really the one who was to come, or shall we look for another?” In other words, he lost his certainty because that prophetic spirit had departed from him.

John was arrested. He was arrested by Herod the tetrarch of Galilee. Herod, whose father had been King Herod who had murdered the children of Bethelehem. This Herod was a puny duplicate of his father – half pagan, half Jewish. Of his father, Augustus had said, “It is better to be his suios” – his sow – “than his uios” – his son, because he wouldn’t eat pig but he killed many of his own children. But this Herod was a pale reflection of that. And he had a lovely wife who was the daughter of the king who ruled over Damascus, but he fell in love with his own brother’s wife. And his brother being weaker than him even though he also was a tetrarch, he took her for his own. He committed in the same moment incest and adultery. He took her for his wife against the law of God.

And when John spoke publicly against this, and called on Herod to repent, Herod had him arrested. He had him thrown into prison. Yet, Herod still had within him a hope and an expectation of God’s visitation of his people. And so Herod, occasionally, would go down into the prison. And he would sit down and ask John to tell him what his message was. And he would listen to John preach, and John would preach to an audience of one plus the guards. Herod would be moved to such excitement by the possibility of the truth of this message that he would start to do good things. He was kind of like was said by Monica Lewinski about Bill Clinton: that she had to make sure she saw him on Sunday afternoon when he came home from church, because if he came back with his “Sunday school face” on, she knew that he was starting to repent and that he would get rid of her. And so, Herod would think of doing good, and he would do some acts of charity, and then he would become excited by the fact that John was attacking him and he would draw into himself and become morose.

John probably would have remained in jail for the rest of Herod’s life, except that Herodian, Herod’s illegitimate mate plotted against him. On Herod’s birthday she brought in her own daughter, Salome – a little girl, 14 years old or so. And she bade her to do seductive dancing – what we used to call “the dance of the seven maidens” – in front of all of Herod’s chiefs of state, and satraps, and important men. She pandered her daughter as entertainment to this lascivious crowd of drunks.

When they’d all drunk well, and she had danced exquisitely according to the art of the “belly dance,” then Herod stands up, and knowing that the people were pleased, said, “I will give you anything you ask of me, my dear. Even half of my kingdom!”

Now the girl was probably excited. She would have been happy, probably, to have a Hannah Montana DVD.

But she went to her mother and said, “Herod said I can have anything I want. What should I ask for?”

Rather than saying to her, get the dowry from him now, or get your money to go to the university, or even a pink convertible, she said, “I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

And so this girl, who had been used, who had been abused, and who now had been offered a chance to at least fulfill some of her legitimate human expectations, and hopes, and desires, was turned into a murderess. And obeying her mother – and that’s the first lesson children: You don’t obey your parents if they tell you to sin. You don’t obey them. You don’t talk disrespectfully toward them, you don’t call them names, you simply say, “I cannot do that. That is a sin,” alright? But she did what her mother told her.

She said, “I want by-and-by, the head of John the Baptist in a charger.”

How disgusted she must have been when a couple hours later it was delivered to her.

Here’s what went through Herod’s mind, he said, “I shouldn’t be doing this. I should not kill this prophet of god. But you know, I made a promise, and if I break the promise, isn’t that sin?”

No it is not a sin to break a promise it was a sin to make to begin with. But then there was an undercurrent to what he was saying. He wasn’t just talking about breaking his promise - he was thinking about what his men were going to think of him. If he had promised to do whatever she said, and then he didn’t do it, would he be the laughing stalk of all his chiefs of state and satraps and important men? So Herod sent the executioner, and the executioner executed the order, and John the Baptist was beheaded. Well we learn from that that if you make a rash promise or a commitment and it leads to sin or destruction, you should not follow it. You should back off from it. You should repent it. You should withdraw from it.

So, the little girl was brought a bloody head in a pool of blood on a platter. That was her reward. That’s what her mother bought for her by her mother’s indulging in sin and hatred and desire for revenge and murderous spirit. This is what Herod gave her as a gift of his own cowardice, of his selfishness, of his own self-insecurity.

So, now John is dead. And it would appear that evil had triumphed over good; that the forces of darkness had destroyed the forces of life. For had not this false king of this world been able to stop the mouth of the one who was sent to be the forerunner, to go before the face of the Lord and prepare his way. But unbeknownst to Herod, unbeknownst to anyone on earth at that time except to our Lord JC, Herod facilitated the Lord’s cousin fulfilling the rest of his mission. For having preached on earth in the land of Israel the coming of the Messiah, he was now destined to descend to the dead and to preach to every soul from Adam on, all who had died from the original sin until the known day, that the Messiah who had come to earth was soon to come into Hades itself and to loose the pangs of death and to raise up as many as turned to them. So John became the preacher of the destruction of hell, of the resurrection of the dead, of life everlasting.

That’s why, here, on this icon, when you see our Lord raising Adam and Eve, you see John the Baptist pointing and saying, “This is the one I told you about. See, he’s here now.”

He gave a warning to hell that it’s days were numbered. So Herod, who thought, by an act of violence, by an act of cunning, by yielding to the entreaties of his sinful cohort that he somehow or another could stop that ringing in his ear that caused him guilt and made his nights sleepless. Herod, rather, sent on his way to dead, the prophet who went before the face of the Lord in hell to prepare the way there as he had prepared the way on earth; and to be the vanguard of the resurrection of all flesh.

So this is why St. John the Baptist’s day is so important. We call it a feast day, and it says on the calendar it’s a fast day. We’re allowed wine and oil on that day. Among our traditions, many of our people do not eat anything off of plates that day – they only eat things from bowls. They do not use sharp instruments on their table on that day, in respect for the acts that severed the head of the prophet and forerunner. Some also don’t eat things that are round on that day – that have the shape of a head. These are not important religious truths, they’re simply little ways of reminding ourselves that this great feast on which the light began to shine in hell, was also a day of great sorrow because for a time the world was deprived of the preaching of the prophet of grace, of he who was to declare that the valleys should be filled in and the mountains laid low, and the way for the Lord, a highway for God, should be prepared in the wilderness.

So, on St. John the Baptist’s day, on Friday, if you’re not able to be here, at least remember that this was the day on which the forerunner suffered because of human sin. Remember the web of evil that started out with the lust a man and woman for each other that made them commit the sin of adultery, to abandon their own spouses. Herod ended up driven into exile. Herodias, in fleeing, fell through the ice in the winter. And it was said by those who accompanied her they couldn’t get her out of the ice because as soon as she fell through the water froze around her and all that appeared was her head on the surface of the ice, in just imitation of the way that she had ordered the severed head of the forerunner.

Let us then, in repentance, accept God’s mercy and through the prayers of St. John the Baptist, honor God who awards every good intention and is able to turn the evil devices of men to an outcome by which evil is destroyed.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Glory to Jesus Christ!

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