Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
Yesterday, August 29, we commemorated the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. The scriptural text read at the Liturgy was MK. 6:14-29; and we also find the gruesome narrative in MT. 14:1-12. The evangelists relate the story in a way that sharply contrasts the righteousness of St. John and the utter decadence of Herod Antipas' court, beginning, of course, with his wife Herodias and her daughter Salome. St. John, the ascetic, prophet and voice "crying in the wilderness" was raised up by God to announce the coming of the Messiah, but also to denounce any unrighteousness that arrogantly ignored the Law of God. Herod Antipas was an example of that unrighteousness, unlawfully married to his brother's wife, and surrounded by a sycophantic court. Beyond that, the image of the young "dancing girl" receiving St. John's severed head on a platter and then presenting it as a "gift" to her mother, must remain one of the Bible's most brutal images of total moral depravity. Created in the "image and likeness of God," human beings, both male and female, are capable of sinking deep into the abyss of unrestrained evil. Here is a striking reminder that the gift and responsibility of human freedom can degenerate into subhuman license, wherein "everything is permitted."
Yet, perhaps it will prove to be more fruitful to turn our attention elsewhere. We call St. John "the Baptist" and "the Forerunner." These titles are meant to identify his unique and important ministry in relation to Jesus, "the Coming One." At a time when prophets and prophecy had seemed a thing of the past in Israel, God sent forth St. John to preach a baptism of repentance that would prepare the people of Israel for the advent of the Messiah, who would be Jesus of Nazareth. St. John cast his prophetic teaching in the fiery and apocalyptic language that has created an enduring image of him as the stern prophet of the impending judgement of God:
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (LK. 3:7-9)
In addition to this, though, St. John anticipated the ethical ideals of Jesus about how we need to treat our neighbors with equity and compassion ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"):
" He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do? And he said to them, "Collect no more than is appointed you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages." (LK. 3:11-14)
Eventually, then, in fulfillment of his role as Forerunner and Baptist, St. John recognized the Lord when Jesus approached the Jordan River and "allowed" Himself to be baptized by St. John. Once he identified Jesus as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (JN. 1:29), St. John began to "decrease" so that the Lord may "increase." This attests to the great humility of St. John. This is his "kenotic moment." And this kenosis ("self-emptying") will culminate in his beheading; as Christ's kenosis will culminate on the Cross. We have St. John's own witness to this in the words recorded by St. John the Evangelist:
"He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase but I must decrease." (JN. 4:29-30)
Although we have given St. John the appropriate titles of "Baptist" and "Forerunner," he refers to himself as the "friend of the Bridegroom." At a wedding, all attention must fall upon the Bridegroom and the Bride. A true friend will never usurp that attention, but will carefully act in such a way as to ensure it. Only a false friend will act otherwise. Christ is the Bridegroom and Israel, the Church or the human soul is the Bride. As a "friend of the Bridegroom," St. John is loyal, trustworthy, and ever-ready to serve. As a true friend, he will accept a position of vulnerability for the sake of that friendship if need be. He rejoices simply to stand near Christ and hear His voice. In fact, as a friend his joy is "full." What a blessing it is to arrive at the fullness of life and joy in one's vocation, even in the awareness of the great "price" one must pay for that fulfillment! Indeed, St. John the Baptist and Forerunner of the Lord paid the full price for being a friend of the Bridegroom.
As "friends" of Christ - "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (JN. 15:14) - how wonderful to be able to "rejoice greatly at the bridegroom's voice" as did St. John. When we serve in a parish, as a priest, a member of the parish council, a church school teacher, or in any of the various ministries of the parish; it is essential that our role is to serve the Bridegroom as a true "friend," always perfectly willing to "decrease" so that all attention is given to the Bridegroom - Christ - so that He may "increase" in the minds and hearts of the parish faithful. There is no room for egosim and unhealthy vanity. In the presence of the Bridegroom it would be unseemly to draw attention to ourselves at the expense of His saving, healing and transforming presence. All of that is indicative of a shallowness and "self-love" that has no place in the presence of Christ. If "among those born of women, none is greater than he" (LK.. 7:28), then St. John remains the truest image of faithfulness to God, genuine humility and of that friendship that Christ offers to all of us.