Today the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the beheading of the glorious prophet, forerunner, and Baptist John. The Church reverences the holy saint with three separate and distinct titles: prophet, forerunner and Baptist. The first title associated with St. John is prophet. This is due to the fact that the Holy Orthodox Church widely considers St. John to be the last and greatest prophet of the Old Testament. His role as prophet is reaffirmed by Christ Himself in the Gospel of St. Matthew when he says: “Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. (Matthew 11:9,14). His role as prophet is once again reaffirmed by his own father prophet Zachariah in the Gospel of St. Luke when he proclaims: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76). In addition, these proclamations fulfill Old Testament prophecy which prefigure St. John’s role as prophet. In Malachi 4:5, it is written: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes”. Therefore, we see that the role of St. John as prophet is not only pre-figured in Old Testament scripture, but is also re-affirmed by Christ Himself.
The second title associated with St. John is forerunner. The title forerunner is given to describe St. John’s prophetic ministry that served as a bridge between Old Testament revelation and the new covenant by proclaiming the imminent arrival and advent of Christ. His role as forerunner is most evident and described in the Gospel of St. Luke when the angel Gabriel proclaims the following to Zachariah: “But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zachariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-17). And when Zachariah was allowed to speak he opened his mouth and was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesized: “for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,” (Luke 1:76-77). These two proclamations also fulfill Old Testament prophecies which prefigure the role of St. John as forerunner; they can be found in Malachi 3:1 and Malachi 4:5-6 respectively." See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:1). “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:6). And finally Christ says in the Gospel of Matthew: “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. (Matthew 11:10;14).
The third and final title associated with St. John is Baptist. St. Johns primary role was to persuade the lost tribe of Israel to change their ways and to call them to repentance “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2) and bring them back to the Lord their God. To complete the action of repentance of God’s chosen people St. John gave them “the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76-77) which was done by baptizing them in the River Jordan. This ritual submersion into water by St. John symbolized the spiritual rebirth of all those who were baptized. This tradition comes from the Old Testament purification rites or practices known as “mikveh” or “mikvah”. The “mikveh” is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in order to regain ritual purity or purification after ritually impure incidents have occurred. It also represents both the beginning and end of significant periods in a person’s spiritual life. St. John therefore, in essence, was performing a “mikvah” in order to symbolize the beginning of the person’s spiritual preparation to receive the coming Messiah. In essence, the performing of the “mikveh” by St. John confirmed the repentance and intentions of those Israelites, who made a sincere desire to follow, adhere and believe in the coming promise of the Messiah and his impending kingdom that St. John was prophesizing about.
Just as many of those who sincerely wanted to change their spiritual life and were seeking the impending coming of the Messiah that St. John was preaching about, there were those who refused to change their ways and saw St. John as a threat to the sinful lifestyle they chose to live. In the Gospel reading for this day in Mark 6:14-30; we hear how Herodias despises St. John for his vocal dis-approval and condemnation for Herod marrying her, who was not only his brother Philip's former wife, but also Herod's niece, which was in violation of Old Testament Law. “For John had said unto Herod, it is not lawful for thee to have thy brothers wife.” (Mark 6:18). The most prominent figure in all of the Bible who vehemently refuses to accept and serve Christ is the devil himself and he shows himself in this Gospel reading through Herodias's daughter Salome, who was also both Herod's grand-niece and stepdaughter. The devil used Salome as an instrument to ultimately silence St. Johns prophetic message of “"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2). As Salome danced before Herod the temptations of the flesh and lust entered Herod, as a result of this temptation Herod makes an oath to her: “Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.” (Mark 6:22-23). And when Salome asked her mother what she should ask for, Herodias replied “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." (Mark 6:25). As we see the devil worked actively in Herodias, her daughter Salome and Herod in order to silence and prevent the spreading St. John’s prophetic message of repentance, the impending coming of the Messiah and his kingdom to the Jewish community.
The actions of Herod, Herodias and the beheading of St. John the Baptist should act as a reminder to all of us of the great battle between good and evil which continues to this day and will ultimately conclude in the end of days when Christ will come in His glory to judge both the living and the dead. We should ask ourselves are we adherents of St. John who preached "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2), or are we like Herod and Herodias who enjoyed their sinful lifestyle and saw the message of St. John as a threat to their lifestyle. For us today we Orthodox Christians should examine ourselves and our lifestyle and see if the way we live is contrary to the salvific message of Christ and His Gospel and if so are we willing to change our ways and repent for our sins. Herodias and Herod were unwilling to repent and in the end they lost the free gift of salvation that Christ offers each and every one of us. These are the questions that this Gospel reading is posing to us today. We must remember that the period between the Resurrection of Jesus Christ until the second coming of our Lord in His glory is a time for preparation and repentance. Christ at this time is calling all of us to repentance. He wants us to walk away from the daily temptations that the devil bombards us with in our lives, to change our sinful lifestyle and for us talk walk toward His all-embracing, merciful and loving arms. According to the well-known Bulgarian theologian Archimandrite Seraphim Alexsiev “we are all sick with sin”. This is why we must always remember that the Church represents a hospital. The priest is considered a spiritual doctor. The spiritual advice that a priest gives during confession represents a prescription for a spiritual cure and communion represents the medicine that the priest prescribes during confession which spiritually and physically heals us and restores us to wholeness, purity and full spiritual unification with Jesus Christ. Therefore, let us examine our sickness and without hesitation adhere to the words of St. John the Baptist “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2) and enter the hospital (the Church) which is always willing and waiting to receive us so that we may be healed of our infirmities, so that we can be spiritually prepared to enter Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, which St. John the Baptist so zealously and passionately preached and prophesized about. Amen.
V. Rev. Victor Wronskyj
Holy Trinity Parish, Brooklyn, NY