Today we celebrate the Beheading of the Forerunner, one of only three great feasts of the Church year not dedicated either to the Lord or the Mother of God. And despite the sorrowful nature of this day’s events, nevertheless it remains a celebration — albeit one which we keep with great spiritual sobriety, observing a strict fast even when it falls (as it does this year) on a Sunday. Why do we keep it as a celebration? Because the beheading of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist of the Lord John was the crown and fulfilment of his entire life on this earth: he died just as he lived, preaching repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Why do we observe it with strict sobriety? Because there is no more fitting way to honor the Forerunner than to imitate his holy zeal and asceticism, and to avoid the self-indulgent lusts and excesses of Herod which led him to commit the heinous and bloody crime we noetically see before us today.
It is especially necessary for us — the Christians of the latter days — to honor and emulate the holy zeal of the Forerunner, since so many of us are all but overwhelmed by spiritual lukewarmness, laziness, and acedia. But it is also necessary to consider precisely what kind of zeal is set before us today, for there are also those of us who are beset by “a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). Indeed, it can be one of the great temptations of the modern age to forget the great truth spoken by St. Joseph of Optina: “Zeal that desires to uproot all evil is in fact the very worst evil.” So what can we learn from the Forerunner about that true and holy zeal, which is both wise and well-pleasing to God?
The first thing we must observe is that St. John from his very childhood “was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel” (Luke 1:80). In other words, he began with the very first step laid out by St. John Climacus in The Ladder of Divine Ascent: renunciation of the world. Often a misguided zeal can urge us to reach quickly for the heights of virtue, rather than to begin humbly with the necessary foundations. Such overweening zeal is ultimately rooted in pride, and thus doomed to disaster. There is no room for the holiness of God to take up its abode in a heart that has not yet been humbled and cleansed from the passions, and therefore St. John fled far from “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). And so we too must follow his example, focusing our efforts and energies on humbly withdrawing from our passionate attachments in order to create the space within ourselves for a life of prayer to take root and grow.
And indeed, it was the life of prayer St. John cultivated his whole life that enabled him to become one of the most powerful preachers the world has ever known. He spoke of Christ and the Kingdom of God from his own personal experience, not from abstract knowledge or secondhand ideas. The people who flocked to St. John did not do so merely because of the words he spoke, but even more so because of the life he lived. There are many people who are capable of speaking truly beautiful words, but it is something far more rare and precious to behold someone capable of living a truly beautiful life. So if we ourselves wish to take up the commandment of the Lord to “preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), we must first of all examine what it is that we are preaching with our very lives.
We should also take note of the fact that St. John presciently observed the commandment of Christ: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet” (Matt. 7:6). The Forerunner did not go about finding sinners to reprove them and cast their wickedness in their teeth; on the contrary, even after his public ministry began he remained beyond the River Jordan, preaching only to those who came to him of their own free will. Likewise we ourselves must be exceedingly careful to direct our zeal not toward the sinful world around us, but rather toward the sinful worldliness within our own hearts. St. Isaac the Syrian exhorts us:
Do not provoke any man or vie zealously with him, either for the sake of the Faith, or on account of his evil deeds; but watch over yourself not to blame or accuse any man in any matter. For we have a Judge in the heavens Who is impartial. But if you would have that man return to the truth, be grieved over him and, with tears and love, say a word or two unto him; but do not be inflamed with anger against him, lest he see within you signs of hostility. For love does not know how to be angry, or provoked, or passionately to reproach anyone.
Such pastoral love was entirely characteristic of the preaching of the Forerunner. For though his words were at times fiery, nevertheless these words were always within the hopeful and joyful context of his greater message: “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Luke 3:3), that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). And despite the remarkable zeal he displayed in his own righteous way of life, St. John was at the same time exceptionally moderate (and perhaps even lenient) toward “the people [who] asked him, saying, What shall we do then?” (Luke 3:10). He did not demand of them great feats of asceticism like his own, but rather simply asked that they share what they had with those in need. And even the soldiers and civil servants of the pagan Roman occupation he treated mercifully, not demanding that they renounce their positions, but merely that they refrain from abusing them. For the true preaching of repentance can only spring forth from a merciful and compassionate heart — a heart like that of the Savior Himself.
So coming to the sorrowful events of this day, we can therefore understand that even such a great sinner as Herod was nonetheless still beloved by the merciful and compassionate heart of the Forerunner. For St. John’s rebuke of Herod’s lawless marriage with Herodias was not uttered out of spiteful condemnation, but rather out of mercy and a sincere desire for Herod to come to repentance. The Gospels tell us that Herod knew “that [St. John] was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20). Therefore St. John’s reproval of his wicked marriage was not doomed to failure, nor destined to fall on deaf ears. It was not a product of self-righteous indignation, but rather of pastoral and self-sacrificial love — a love like that of Christ, ready even to lay down one’s own life for the sake of the beloved. In the modern age we have almost completely forgotten the profound practice of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), instead either speaking the truth in anger, or else speaking pleasant falsehoods in the name of love. But on this day, let us take up the example of the Forerunner and struggle to relearn this apostolic commandment — one which can only be fulfilled by becoming rooted and grounded in the authentic love of Christ.
Such love was the entire content and definition of the zeal of the Forerunner. For although the Lord testified that “among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11), nevertheless he accounted himself and his own righteousness as nothing, seeking only the joy of being with Christ. As St. John himself answered his disciples:
A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven… He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:27, 29-30)
It is precisely such joyful love — the joyful love that caused St. John to leap within his mother’s womb at the sound of the Mother of God’s voice, the joyful love that drove him to a lifetime of deprivation in the desert, the joyful love that caused him to lay down his own life in attempting to bring a sinner to repentance, the joyful love with which he preached the coming of Christ even to those in hades — it is this and nothing else that is the genuine mark of true and godly zeal. For as the Apostle says: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance… they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-25).
Therefore, through the prayers of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist of the Lord John, may all of us seek and attain to such true spiritual zeal, a zeal that gladly lays aside all the passing things of this life in order to lay hold of the everlasting joy that can only be found in the love of Christ. Amen.