August 29, 2019: BEHEADING OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
August 29, 2019: BEHEADING OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
Rank: Greater Double.
“In those days:
the word of the Lord came to me saying: Gird thy loins, and arise and speak to Juda all that I command thee. Fear not their presence: For I will make thee not to be afraid before them.”
“I spake of thy law in the presence of kings, and I was not
ashamed: and I meditated on thy commandments, which I loved exceedingly.”
(Ps, cxviii. 46-47)
Grant, we beseech thee, O Almighty God, that the venerable solemnity of blessed John the Baptist, thy Precursor and Martyr, may procure us the effects of thy saving aid. Who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.
‘At that time, Herod sent and apprehended John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, the wife of Philip his brother, because he had married her. For John said to Herod: “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.” Now Herodias laid snares for him, and was desirous to put him to death, and could not. For Herod feared John, knowing him to be a just and holy man, and kept him, and when he heard him did many things; and he heard him willingly. And when a convenient day was come, Herod made a supper for his birthday, for the princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. And when the daughter of the same Herodias had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod, and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: “Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee.” And he swore to her, “Whatsoever thou shalt ask, I will give thee; though it be the half of my kingdom.” Who, when she was gone out, said to her mother: “What shall I ask?” But she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying, “I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish the head of John the Baptist.” And the king was struck sad; yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her; but sending an executioner he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish. And he beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a dish, and gave it to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother. Which his disciples hearing, came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.’ (Gospel of the feast, St. Mark, Ch. vi. 17-29)
Thus died the greatest of ‘them that are born of women:’ without witnesses, the prisoner of a petty tyrant, the victim of the vilest of passions, the wages of a dancing girl! Rather than keep silence in the presence of crime, although there were no hope of converting the sinner, or give up his liberty, even when in chains: the herald of the Word made flesh was ready to die. How beautiful, as St. John Chrysostom remarks, is this liberty of speech, when it is truly the liberty of God’s Word, when it is an echo of heaven’s language! Then, indeed, it is a stumbling-block to tyranny, the safe-guard of the world and of God’s rights, the bulwark of a nation’s honour as well as of its temporal and eternal interests. Death has no power over it. To the weak murderer of John the Baptist, and to all who would imitate him to the end of time, a thousand tongues, instead of one, repeat in all languages and in all places: ‘It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.’
‘O great and admirable mystery!’ cries out Saint Augustine. ‘He must increase, but I must decrease, said John, said the voice which personified all the voices that had gone before announcing the Father’s Word Incarnate in His Christ. Every word, in that it signifies something, in that it is an idea, an internal word, is independent of the number of syllables, of the various letters and sounds; it remains unchangeable in the heart that conceives it, however numerous may be the words that give it outward existence, the voices that utter it, the languages, Greek, Latin and the rest, into which it may be translated. To him who knows the word, expressions and voices are useless. The prophets were voices, the apostles were voices; voices are in the psalms, voices in the Gospel. But let the Word come, the Word who was in the beginning, the Word who was with God, the Word who was God; when we shall see Him as He is, shall we hear the Gospel repeated? Shall we listen to the prophets? Shall we read the Epistles of the apostles? The voice fails where the Word increases.. . . Not that in Himself the Word can either diminish or increase. But He is said to grow in us, when we grow in Him. To him, then, who draws near to Christ, to him who makes progress in the contemplation of wisdom, words are of little use; of necessity they tend to fail altogether. Thus the ministry of the voice falls short in proportion as the soul progresses towards the Word; it is thus that Christ must increase and John decrease. The same is indicated by the decollation of John, and the exaltation of Christ upon the cross; as it had already been shown by their birthdays: for, from the birth of John the days begin to shorten, and from the birth of our Lord they begin to grow longer.’
The holy doctor here gives a useful lesson to those who guide souls along the path to perfection. If, from the very beginning, they must respectfully observe the movements of grace in each of them, in order to second the Holy Ghost, and not to supplant Him; so also, in proportion as these souls advance, the directors must be careful not to impede the Word by the abundance of their own speech. Moreover, they must discreetly respect the ever-growing powerlessness of those souls to express what our Lord is working in them. Happy to have led the bride to the Bridegroom, let them learn to say with John: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’
The sacred cycle itself seems to convey to us too a similar lesson; for, during the following days, we shall see its teaching as it were tempered down, by the fewness of the feasts, and the disappearance of great solemnities until November. The school of the holy liturgy aims at adapting the soul, more surely and more fully than could any other school, to the interior teaching of the Spouse. Like John, the Church would be glad to let God alone speak always, if that were possible here below; at least, towards the end of the way, she loves to moderate her voice, and sometimes even to keep silence, in order to give her children an opportunity of showing that they know how to listen inwardly to Him, who is both her and their sole love. Let those who interpret her thought, first understand it well. The friend of the Bridegroom, who, until the nuptial-day, walked before Him, now stands and listens; and the voice of the Bridegroom, which silences his own, fills him with immense joy: ‘This my joy therefore is fulfilled,’ said the precursor. (St. John, iii. 29)
Thus the feast of the Decollation of St. John may be considered as one of the landmarks of the liturgical year. With the Greeks it is a holiday of obligation. Its great antiquity in the Latin Church is evidenced by the mention made of it in the martyrology called St. Jerome’s, and by the place it occupies in the Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentairies. The precursor’s blessed death took place about the feast of the Pasch; but, that it might be more freely celebrated, this day was chosen, whereon his sacred head was discovered at Emesa.
The vengeance of God fell heavily upon Herod Antipas. Josephus relates how he was overcome by the Arabian Aretas, whose daughter he had repudiated in order to follow his wicked passions; and the Jews attributed the defeat to the murder of St. John. He was deposed by Rome from his tetrarchate, and banished to Lyons in Gaul, where the ambitious Herodias shared his disgrace. As to her dancing daughter Salome, there is a tradition gathered from ancient authors, that, having gone out one winter day to dance upon a frozen river, she fell through into the water; the ice, immediately closing round her neck, cut off her head, which bounded upon the surface, thus continuing for some moments the dance of death.
From Macherontis, beyond the Jordan, where their master had suffered martyrdom, John’s disciples carried his body to Sebaste (Samaria), out of the territory of Antipas; it was necessary to save it from the profanations of Herodias, who had not spared his august head. The wretched woman did not think her vengeance complete, till she had pierced with a hairpin the tongue that had not feared to utter her shame; and that face, which for seven centuries the church of Amiens has offered to the veneration of the world, still bears traces of the violence inflicted by her in her malicious triumph. In the reign of Julian the Apostate, the pagans wished to complete the work of this unworthy descendant of the Machabees, by opening the saint’s tomb at Sebaste, in order to burn and scatter his remains. But the empty sepulchre continued to be a terror to the demons, as St. Paula attested with deep emotion a few years later. Moreover, some of the precious relics were saved, and dispersed throughout the east. Later on, especially at the time of the Crusades, they were brought into the west, where many churches glory in possessing them.
Life of St. John the Baptist.
St. John the Baptist was called by God to be the forerunner of his Divine Son, to usher him into the world, and to prepare mankind by penance to receive their great Redeemer, whom the prophets had foretold at a distance through every age from the beginning of the world; never ceasing to excite the people of God to faith and hope in him, by whom alone they were to be saved. The more the sublime function of this saint surpassed that of the Jewish legislator and of all the patriarchs and ancient prophets, the greater were the graces by which he was fitted for the same. Some of the prophets had been sanctified from their birth; but neither in so wonderful nor in so abundant a manner as the Baptist. In order to preserve his innocence spotless, and to improve the extraordinary graces which he had received, he was directed by the Holy Ghost to lead an austere and contemplative life in the wilderness, in the continual exercises of devout prayer and penance, from his infancy till he was thirty years of age. How much does this precaution of a saint, who was strengthened by such uncommon privileges and graces, condemn the rashness of parents who expose children in their slippery time of youth to the contagious air of wicked worldly company, and to every danger! or, who, instead of training them up in suitable habits of self-denial, humility, devotion, and reasonable application to serious duties, are themselves by example and pernicious maxims the corruptors of their tender minds, and the flatterers of their passions, which they ought to teach them to subdue.
St. John cannot be commonly imitated by youth in his total retreat from the world; but he teaches what are the means by which they must study, according to their circumstances, to sanctify that most precious age of life; what they must shun, in what maxims they ought to ground themselves, and how they are to form and strengthen in themselves the most perfect habits of all virtues. Let them consider him as a special pattern, and the model of innocence and of that fervour with which they must labour continually to improve in wisdom, piety, and every virtue. He is particularly the pattern which those ought always to have before their eyes, who are called by God to the ministry of his altar, or of his word. Let no one be so rash as to intrude himself into the sanctuary before he has laboured a long time to qualify himself for so high an office by retirement, humility, holy contemplation, and penance, and before the spirit of those virtues has taken deep root in his soul. St. John led a most austere life in the wilderness, conversing only with God, till, in the thirtieth year of his age, he was perfectly qualified to enter upon the administration of his office; that being also the age at which the priests and Levites were permitted by the Jewish law to begin the exercise of their functions (Numbers, iv. 3).
God, by a revelation, intimated to John his commission of precursor in the wilderness, and the faithful minister began to discharge it in the desert of Judea itself, near the borders, where it was thinly inhabited, upon the banks of the Jordan towards Jericho. Clothed with the weeds of penance, he announced to all men the obligation they lay under of washing away their iniquities with the tears of sincere compunction; and proclaimed the Messiah, who was then coming to make his appearance among them (St. Luke, iii. 1). He was received by the people as the 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, and to prepare themselves to reap the benefit of the mercy that was offered them. He exhorted all to works of charity and to a reformation of their lives, and those who addressed themselves to him in these dispositions he baptized in the river. The Jews practised several religious washings of the body as legal purifications; but no baptism before this of John had so great and mystical a signification. It chiefly represented the manner in which the souls of men must be cleansed from all sin and vicious habits, to be made partakers of Christ's spiritual kingdom, and it was on emblem of the interior effects of sincere repentance; but it differed entirely from the great sacrament of baptism which Christ soon after instituted, to which it was much inferior in virtue and efficacy, and of which it was a kind of type.
St. John's baptism was a temporary rite, by which men who were under the law were admitted to some new spiritual privileges, which they had not before, by him who was the messenger of Christ, and of his new covenant. Whence it is called by the fathers a partition between the law and the gospel. This baptism of John prepared men to become Christians, but did not make them so. It was not even conferred in the name of Christ, or in that of the Holy Ghost, who had not been as yet given. When St. John had already preached and baptized about six months, our Redeemer went from Nazareth, and presented himself, among others, to be baptized by him. The Baptist knew him by a divine revelation, and, full of awe and respect for his sacred person, at first excused himself, but at length acquiesced out of obedience. The Saviour of sinners was pleased to be baptized among sinners, not to be cleansed himself, but to sanctify the waters, says St. Ambrose, that is, to give them the virtue to cleanse away the sins of men. St. Austin and St. Thomas Aquinas think he then instituted the holy sacrament of baptism, which he soon after administered by his disciples, whom doubtless, he had first baptized himself.
The solemn admonitions of the Baptist, attended with the most extraordinary innocence and sanctity, and the marks of his divine commission, procured him a mighty veneration and authority among the Jews, and several begun to look upon him as the Messiah, who, from the ancient prophecies, was expected by all the nations of the East to appear about that time in Judaea, as Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus testify. To remove all thoughts of this kind, he freely declared that he only baptized sinners with water in order to repentance and a new life; but that there was one ready to appear among them, who would baptize them with the effusion of the Holy Ghost, and who so far exceeded him in power and excellency, that he was not worthy to do for him the meanest servile office. Nevertheless, so strong were the impressions which the preaching and deportment of John made upon the minds of the Jews, that they sent to him a solemn embassy of priests and Levites from Jerusalem to inquire of him if he was not the Christ (St. John, i. 20). True humility shudders at the very mention of undue honour; and, the higher applause it meets with among men, the lower it sinks in a deep sense and sincere acknowledgment of its own baseness and unworthiness, and in the abyss of its nothingness; and in this disposition it is inflamed with a most ardent desire to give all praise and glory to the pure gratuitous goodness and mercy of God alone. In these sentiments St. John “confessed, and did not deny; and he confessed, I am not the Christ.” He also told the deputies that he was “neither Elias nor a prophet.” Being pressed to give some account who he was, he calls himself “the voice of one crying in the desert;” he will not have men have the least regard for him, but turns their attention entirely from himself, as unworthy to be named or thought of, and only bids them listen to the summons which God sent them by his mouth. A voice is no more than an empty sound; it is a mere nothing. How eloquent does sincere humility render the saints to express the sentiments of their own nothingness! Like the Baptist, every preacher of God's word must be penetrated with the most feeling sense of his own baseness; must study always to be nothing himself and in his own eyes, whilst yet he exerts all his powers that God, the great All, may be known, served, and glorified by all, and in all: he must be himself merely a voice, but a voice of thunder to awake in all hearts a profound sense of their spiritual miseries, and of the duties which they owe to God.
The Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Messias at his baptism; he did the same when the Jews consulted him from Jerusalem whether he was not the Messias: again, when seeing him come towards him the day following, he called him, “The Lamb of God;” also when his disciples consulted him about the baptism of Jesus, and on other occasions. He baptized first in the Jordan, on the borders of the desert of Judaea; afterwards on the other side of that river, at a place called Bethania, or rather Bethabara, which word signifies House of the Passage or common ford: lastly at Ennon, near Salim, a place abounding in waters, situated in Judaea near the Jordan. In the discharge of his commission he was a perfect model to be imitated by all true ministers of the divine word. Like an angel of the Lord “he was neither moved by benedictions nor by maledictions,” having only God and his holy will in view. Entirely free from vanity or love of popular applause, he preached not himself, but Christ. His tenderness and charity won the hearts, and his zeal gave him a commanding influence over the minds of his hearers. He reproved the vices of all orders of men with impartial freedom, and an undaunted authority; the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the profaneness of the Sadducees, the extortion of the publicans, the rapine and licentiousness of the soldiers, and the incest of Herod himself.
The tetrarch Herod Antipas going to Rome in the sixteenth year of Tiberius, the thirty-third of Christ, lodged in his way at the house of his brother Herod Philip, and was smitten with love for his wife Herodias, who was niece to them both. He discovered to her his criminal passion, and she consented to leave her husband and marry him, upon condition that he first divorced his wife, who was daughter, of Aretas, King of the Arabs. To this he readily agreed, and being returned from Rome in the following autumn, he considered how to rid himself of his wife. The princess having got intelligence of his resolution, made her escape, and fled to her further. By her voluntary retreat Herod Antipas saw himself at liberty, and, by a notorious infringement of all laws divine and human, married Herodias, his sister-in-law, though she had children by her own husband, Philip, his brother, who was yet living. St. John Baptist boldly reprehended the tetrarch and his accomplice for so scandalous an incest and adultery, and said to that prince: “It is not lawful for thee to take thy brother's wife.” Herod feared and reverenced John, knowing him to be a holy man; and he did many things by his advice; but, on the other hand, he could not bear that his main sore should be touched, and was highly offended at the liberty which the preacher took in that particular. Thus, whilst he respected him as a saint, he hated him as a censor, and felt a violent struggle in his own breast, between his veneration for the sanctity of the prophet, and the reproach of his own conduct. His passion still got the better, and held him captive, and his flame was nourished by the flatteries of courtiers, and the clamours and artifices of Herodias, who, like an enraged infernal fury, left nothing unattempted to take away the life of him who durst impeach her conduct, and disturb her criminal pleasures and ambition. Herod, to content her, cast the saint into prison. Josephus says the servant of God was confined in the castle of Macherus, two leagues beyond the lake Asphaltites, upon the borders of Arabia Petræa. St. John, hearing in prison of Christ's wonderful works and preaching, sent two of his disciples to him for their information, not doubting but that Christ would satisfy them that he was the Messiah; and that by his answers they would lay aside their prejudices, and join themselves to him.
Herod continued still to respect the man of God, frequently sent for him, and heard him discourse with much pleasure, though he was troubled when he was admonished by him of his faults. Herodias, on the other hand, never ceased by her instigations to endeavour to exasperate him against the holy man, and to seek an opportunity to compass his destruction. An occasion at length fell out favourable to her designs. It was about a year since John the Baptist had been committed close prisoner, when Herod, upon the return of his birthday, made a splendid entertainment for the principal nobility of Galilee, in the castle of Macherus. The dancing of Salome, and other circumstances of this banquet, are sensible proofs to what an infamous pitch of impudence debauchery was carried in this impious court. Salome, a daughter of Herodias by her lawful husband, pleased Herod by her dancing, insomuch that he promised her, with the sacred bond of an oath, to grant her whatever she asked, though it amounted to half of his dominions. From this instance St. Ambrose and other fathers take occasion to show the dangerous consequences of a passion for dancing, and the depravity from which it often takes its rise. Salome having received the above-said ample promise made her by Herod, consulted with her mother what to ask. Herodias was so entirely devoured by lust and ambition, as willingly to forego every other consideration, that she might be at liberty to gratify her passions, and remove him who stood in her way in the pursuit of her criminal inclinations. She therefore instructed her daughter to demand the death of John the Baptist, and her jealousy was so impatient of the least delay, for fear the tyrant might relent if he had time to enter into himself, that she persuaded the young damsel to make it part of her petition that the head of the prisoner should be forthwith brought to her in a dish. This strange request startled the tyrant himself, and caused a damp upon his spirits. He, however, assented, though with reluctance, as men often feel a cruel sting of remorse, and suffer the qualms of a disturbed conscience flying in their face and condemning them, whilst they are drawn into sin by the tyranny of a vicious habit, or some violent passion. We cannot be surprised that Herod should be concerned at so extravagant a petition. The very mention of such a thing by a lady in the midst of a feast and solemn rejoicing, was enough to shock even a man of uncommon barbarity.
The evangelist also informs us, that Herod had conceived a good opinion of the Baptist as a just and holy man; also, that he feared the resentment of the people, who held the man of God in the highest veneration and esteem. Moreover, it was a constant rule or custom, that neither the prince's birthday, nor the mirth of a public assembly and banquet, were to be stained with the condemnation or execution of any criminal whatever; only favours and pardons were to be granted on such occasions. Nevertheless, the weak tyrant, overcome by his passion, and by a fond complaisance, was deaf to the voice of his own conscience, and to every other consideration; and studied, by foolish pretences, to excuse a crime which they could only serve to exaggerate. The tyrant also urged his respect for the company, and his fear of giving them scandal by a perjury. But how easy would true virtue and courage have justified the innocent man to the satisfaction of all persons whom passion did not blind, and have shown the inhumanity of an execution which could not fail to damp the joy of the meeting, and give offence to all who were not interested in the plot! But the tyrant, without giving the saint a hearing, or allowing him so much as the formality of a trial, sent a soldier of his guard to behead him in prison, with an order to bring his head in a charger, and present it to Salome. This being executed, the damsel was not afraid to take that present into her hands, and deliver it to her mother. St. Jerom relates, that the furious Herodias made it her inhuman pastime to prick the sacred tongue with a bodkin, as Fulvia had done Cicero's. Thus died the great forerunner of our blessed Saviour, about two years and three months after his entrance upon his public ministry, about the time of the Paschal solemnity, a year before the death of our blessed Redeemer.
The Baptist's disciples came and took away his body, which they honourably interred. Rufinus and Theodoret inform us, that in the reign of Julian the Apostate, the pagans broke open the tomb of St. John the Baptist, which was at Sebaste or Samaria, and burnt part of the sacred bones, some part being saved by the Christians. These were sent to St. Athanasius at Alexandria. Some time after, in 396, Theodosius built a great church in that city, in honour of the Baptist, upon the spot where the temple of Serapis had formerly stood, and these holy relics were deposited in it, as Theophane testifies. But a distribution of some portions was made to certain other churches; and the great Theodoret obtained a share for his church at Cyrus, and relates, that he and his diocess had received from God several miraculous favours through the intercession of this glorious saint. The Baptist's head was discovered at Emisa, in Syria, in the year 453, and was kept with honour in the great church of that city; till, about the year 800, this precious relic was conveyed to Constantinople, that it might not be sacrilegiously insulted by the Saracens. “When that city was taken by the French in 1204, Wallo de Sarton, a canon of Amiens, brought part of this head, that is, all the face, except the lower jaw, into France, and bestowed it on his own church, where it is preserved to this day. Part of the head of the Baptist is said to be kept in St. Sylvester's church, in Campo Marzo, at Rome, though Sirmond thinks this to be the head of St. John the martyr of Rome. Pope Clement VIII, to remove all reasonable doubt about the relic of this saint, procured a small part of the head that is kept at Amiens, for St. Sylvester's church.
This glorious saint was a martyr, a virgin, a doctor, a prophet, and more than a prophet. He was declared by Christ himself to be greater than all the saints of the old law, the greatest of all that had been born of women. All the high graces with which he was favoured, sprang from his humility; in this all his other virtues were founded. If we desire to form ourselves upon so great a model, we must, above all things, labour to lay the same deep foundation. We must never cease to purge our souls more and more perfectly from all leaven of pride, by earnestly begging this grace of God, by studying with this saint, truly to know ourselves, and by exercising continual acts of sincere humility. The meditation of our own nothingness and wretchedness will help to inspire us with this saving knowledge; and repeated humiliations will ground and improve our souls in a feeling sense of our miseries, and a sincere contempt of ourselves.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. V, Edition 1910;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us.