FRIEND OF THE BRIDEGROOM
Homily for the Beheading of St. John the Baptist
It is difficult, brethren, to imagine a greater and more glorious service than the one performed in his life by St. John the Forerunner, and that truly dovelike humility with which it was allied. The more important a person, the more dangerous becomes for him the temptation of spiritual vanity, the temptation of self-assertion, of living for one’s own glory. And yet among those born of women there was no one greater than John the Baptist…
At the same time, his entire preaching, his entire service were for Another. Coming out to preach, he testifies: “There cometh One mightier than I after me, the latchet of Whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose” (Mark 1:7). The whole purpose of the Forerunner’s life was in this mightier One.
And when they meet at the waters of Jordan, John humbly testifies: “I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” (Matt. 3:14). “Suffer it to be so now, – replies the Son of God, – for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.” And now the Forerunner preaches not only the coming Deliverer, but the One Who has already come: “Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes upon Himself the sins of the world,” – he says, pointing to the Saviour. And so he went out to meet Him, he rejoiced in Him, he handed over his disciples to Him.
But not only in this did he manifest before God his great and totally realized service to Another. Once more he appears to us in the Gospel in all the majesty and beauty of his humility.
At one point his disciples come to him in embarrassment and say: “Rabbi (teacher), He that was with Thee beyond Jordan, to Whom thou barest witness, behold, the Same baptizeth, and all men come to Him” (John 3:26).
And here St. John reveals the depth of his humility, here in his last testimony before his death he bears witness to his most cherished feelings: “Ye yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before Him,” – he replied. “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth Him, rejoiceth greatly for the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, while I must decrease” (John 3:28-30).
These were the Forerunner’s last words about himself and his service, where he appeared in all the majesty of his humility, which had already become ripe for the sacrifice which we commemorate today.
What lesson are we taught by the head of St. John the Baptist that lies before us?
First of all, it not only reminds us, but silently preaches to us of the love which, in the words of the Apostle, seeks nothing for itself, but is ready to give up everything for another.
Furthermore, the holy Head bears wit-ness to humility. This constitutes the truest way into the kingdom of the Heavenly Father – the way of involvement with God, of service to Him, of rejection of all else for the sake of this service.
And in our spiritually impoverished times, not only is the example of the great preacher of repentance instructive for us, but we are especially in need of his intercession for us, of his love, which never ceases and never dies.
May he, the strong one, strengthen our frailty, and may he show us the way to the Throne of the Most Strong, to which lead only two paths – the path of love and the path of humility.
O holy and great John, Forerunner of the Lord, pray to God for us!
Hieromonk Methody, “Before the eyes of God’s truth”)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia, No. 21, 2007)
HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE BEHEADING OF THE LORD’S PROPHET
AND FORERUNNER, ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
Today is a lesser Great Friday, a second Great Friday. For today has been killed the greatest of all people born of woman – the holy Forerunner of the Lord, St. John the Baptist. On this day of a holy and great feast people have the greatest one of all people. It is not I who am saying “the greatest.” What are my praises to the great and glorious John the Baptist worth, when the Lord’s lips have glorified him more than anyone among men, more than any of the apostles, or angels, or prophets, or righteous ones, or wise men. For the Lord’s lips have issued the following words about him: “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11). There is no greater praise in the universe.
Thus today is a lesser Great Friday. Look at how insane people are killing the greatest one among the righteous. Does he inconvenience them? Yes, he inconveniences the lecherous King Herod and the depraved Herodias. God’s truth and God’s veracity inconvenience the iniquitous, inconvenience the poor sinners, inconvenience all who are in the grip of their passions. Look, even today do not Christ’s enemies cry out: crucify, crucify Him? Even today do not Christ’s enemies demand the head of Jesus from Nazareth? And since they demand His head, of course they also demand the head of John the Baptist.
What is this? Has this world turned upside down? People do not want God, do not want the greatest Righteous One in this world. Yes, when people lose their minds from pride, when they lose their reason from egoism, then they have no need of God, then they have no need of God’s truth. They declare themselves to be gods. They declare their trite, earthly, corrupt semblances of truth to be the greatest truths, for they reckon they have no need of Christ’s Truth, they do not want God’s truth. Yes, people with blind minds and blind souls do not see and do not wish to see that in this world man, genuine man, cannot live without God. Why? Because the world is full of Herods, full of Pharisees. The Herods demand the head of St. John the Baptist, the Herods demand the head of all righteous people in the world, while the deceitful Pharisees, the deceitful sages of this world, demand the death of Christ, the Son of God.
Yes, today’s feast is a second Great Friday. Why? Because there is no greater crime than that committed on the day of Great Friday and that committed now, when Herod destroyed the greatest among them that are born of women. Why did the Saviour so glorify St. John the Baptist among all other people? Why? Because, brethren, the holy Forerunner encompassed within himself, within his personality, all the virtues of heaven, the virtues of all the prophets, all the apostles, all the martyrs, all the heavenly angels, all the confessors. Today we celebrate the beheading of the first apostle among the holy apostles, for the Lord’s Forerunner was the first one sent by God to see the Saviour of the world and to announce Him to the world. Long before Apostle Peter, before Apostle Nathaniel, before all the others he testified and announced to the world the God Who became incarnate and appeared as the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the first apostle to see the Holy Spirit descending from heaven upon Jesus Christ, when he baptized Him in Jordan and declared Him to be the Son of God and the Saviour of the world. He is also the first evangelist among the evangelists. He was the first to indicate to the world the Bearer of all glad tidings for mankind – the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the Gospel of heaven and earth, the Gospel of God for the people of this world. – “Here is the Lamb of God, Who takes upon Himself the sin of the world.” In just a few words the Forerunner stated the entire Gospel.
Looking towards the east, he told all of mankind, from Adam to our days:
”Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The Kingdom of Heaven? Here it is – the Lord Jesus from heaven. Within Him is the Heavenly Kingdom. Looking to the west and seeing people drowning in sins and death, he cried out to them too: “Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He looked to the north and the south – the same people, all servants of sin, servants of death, servants of the devil. To all of them he announced the glorious, holy, and salvific Gospel: “Repent ye, people, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He was such an Evangelist, having such great power!
When the Lord began to preach His Gospel, to preach with power, He took these words as the beginning of His Gospel. From that time Jesus began to preach and to say: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Thus the holy Forerunner is the very first Evangelist among Christ’s evangelists.
Today people have seen an Angel in the flesh – an earthly Angel and a heavenly man – St. John the Baptist. Not only did the Old Testament prophet call the Forerunner an angel of the Lord, but the Lord Himself said that this is an Angel sent before Him to prepare the way for Him (Isaiah 40:3; Matt. 11:10). Not only a prophet, said the Saviour about the Forerunner, but even greater than a prophet – an Angel of the Lord. And it is such a one whom people do not want, whom they try to expel from this world! Thus, the holy Forerunner is truly the first Angel in the flesh among the future multitude of angels in the flesh, God’s shining lights, who lived on this earth as heavenly angels, and were angels on earth, and then in heaven they live on as people of God, holy people.
Today we celebrate the great feast of the first one among New Testament prophets. He announced to the people that the Lord Jesus Christ appears to the world not only as a Saviour, but also as a Sanctifier and a Judge of the world. In His hands are both the axe and the shovel: the Lord will purge the earthly field on the day of the Last Judgment and will part the wheat from the chaff, the righteous from the sinners. All of this was foreseen by the great and glorious prophet, the Forerunner of the Lord. For this reason we glorify him today as a holy New Testament prophet, murdered by the iniquitous and criminal King Herod.
The holy Forerunner was affirmed by the Lord as being the greatest among those born of woman also because he became the first New Testament martyr among all other holy martyrs. Look at how he suffered for God’s truth in this world! Suffered with great joy! Today’s main hymn and prayer to the saint mention that he suffered, rejoicing, and went to his death, rejoicing. And with this he became the first example and the first inspiration for all the holy New Testament martyrs, from the first martyr Stephen to this day. All holy martyrs go to their death rejoicing in the Lord Jesus Christ, go to their death knowing that death cannot hold them in its fetters, knowing that for their holy souls death is simply a door – an open door into the Heavenly Kingdom. How else, dear brethren, can we explain the joy of the holy great-martyr George, when his body was being torn apart, his bones were being crushed in a wheel, and yet he joyfully cried out to the Lord, for he saw Him, saw God’s angels standing around Him, and the angels stopped the wheel. Look at the joy in this terrible torture, especially when afterwards the holy great-martyr arose and stood whole and unharmed before the godless Emperor Diocletian. The first discoverer of the joy of martyrdom was the holy Forerunner of the Lord, St. John the Baptist.
Today we similarly glorify the first confessor of the Gospel and Christianity, the first confessor of God in this New Testament world. Look at how fearlessly he spoke and preached God’s truth face-to-face: “King, you should not have the wife of your brother, your living brother. You have taken your brother’s wife away from him. All the laws of heaven and earth are against you, and I, I am telling you these laws of heaven and earth, because that is why I have been sent. King, you cannot have your brother’s wife.” He was fearless as a lion, fearless as a cherubim in the flesh. Thus he was the first confessor of Christ’s faith, and after him came hosts of glorious confessors of Christ in this world, – confessors attesting to and affirming before the entire world, before the east and the west, the north and the south – that the Lord Christ is the One true God in heaven and earth. And despite all persecutions, all the falsehoods of those who try to rebel against Christ in this world, despite all heresies, despite all God’s enemies, despite all Christ’s persecutors, – they are the fearless conquerors of all, and their host is immeasurable, beginning with the holy Forerunner and to this day. They affirm and declare this truth to the entire universe. Christ is before all and above all! He is the One True God.
Yes, the holy Baptist is the first Christian confessor, and thousands and thousands of glorious confessors of Christ in this world streamed after him as after a helmsman.
My dear brethren, a great mystery permeates this feast, just as threads run through a piece of material and make it up. You have heard in today’s Gospel reading: the disciples tell the Saviour that the Forerunner has been beheaded. The lips that have been announcing Thee to the world, Lord, have become silenced! What now? Who are we in comparison to Thy great Baptist? The Lord remains silent. And, inexplicably, He calls His disciples and retreats with them into the desert. What is this? Is the Lord fleeing, is He fleeing from Herod? Look – He, the all-merciful Miracle-worker, gazing upon the unfortunate widowed mother, resurrects her son, who is unknown to anyone except the mother and Himself. But now, Lord, Thy Forerunner is lying dead, murdered, and why dost Thou not resurrect him? Thou hast resurrected the daughter of Jairus, the head of the synagogue. But now the one whom Thou hast called the greatest among those born of woman has been beheaded by the iniquitous king. Lord, preserve Thy Truth, defend Thy first apostle, Thy first martyr, first evangelist, first Angel in the flesh, first prophet, first confessor. Resurrect him! But the Saviour remains silent, goes away into the desert, and prays to God. Why, Lord?
Because the holy Forerunner must also become the first apostle in hell, in the kingdom of death, whither were bound the souls of all the people from Adam to the time of the Saviour’s coming into this world. In this kingdom of death, called hell, i.e. an impenetrable place, where no one sees anyone else, in this kingdom of death were all the people – both the righteous and the sinners – all the Old Testament people before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sin brought death into the world, into man’s environment. And the kingdom of death was the sole abode of human souls after their physical death in this world. The Forerunner was due to also become the Forerunner in hell, in the kingdom of death, in order to preach to the souls of all the people: Behold, He for Whom you have been waiting, Whom you so eagerly wished to see, has come down to earth. Behold all of you, righteous ones: Moses, Abraham, David, all the holy prophets and saints. He has come down to earth as a man, as a Saviour, and He works such miracles as all of you together have never seen. His glance heals all illnesses, His word resurrects from all deaths, His voice expels demons from all those who are possessed. Truly the Saviour of the world has come down to earth, the Lord Jesus Christ. And so I am coming before Him, in order to bring you these wonderful tidings, these joyful tidings: He will also come down here to us. In a little while He will descend and you will see Him. You will see His human soul, all filled with God and shining with an eternal light.
The holy Forerunner appeared in the kingdom of death as the first evangelist, in order to preach Christ’s Gospel to all the souls in the kingdom of death. He also appeared before them as the first martyr, in order to show them how people will joyfully go unto death for the true God, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, until death is vanquished and trampled upon. They will not be afraid of death, because they will be mightier than it. The Lord will grant victory over death of the body by the resurrection of His own body. And so the glorious Forerunner entered the kingdom of death as the Forerunner of all Christ’s confessors in the world and all true prophets in the world, in order to announce to all the souls in the kingdom of death: Behold, death is conquered, the demons are vanquished, the kingdom of death shall be destroyed when the Lord appears here in a brief while. And you shall be led out of this horror into celestial joy, into the heavenly world.
And for this reason the Lord remained silent, for this reason He did not resurrect the greatest one among those born of woman, for the latter had to perform his apostolic, his evangelical, his martyric, his confessor’s endeavor in hell, in the kingdom of death.
Thus for us, Christians, this day is similar to Great Friday. And just as the Resurrection comes for the Saviour after His Great Friday, so does the Forerunner joyously embrace death, for he sees the victory over death and knows that for him, too, the Lord has prepared eternal life and resurrection from the dead on the day of the Last Judgment.
When the Lord was crucified, He descended with His human soul into hell, into the nether world, into the kingdom of death. His body lay in the sepulcher, while with His Divine soul He descended into the kingdom of death. And how amazed were all human souls in hell, when they beheld God in a human soul that was glittering with an indescribable light totally unimaginable to man. Who would not believe in Him, who? Especially since He appears in the kingdom of death so entirely filled with Eternal Truth and Eternal Life. He appears as the conqueror of death. And since the kingdom of death was unable to hold the God Who was contained within Christ’s soul, was unable to restrain God in its hands, it fell apart because of Christ’s Divinity, because of His holy soul, which contained God Himself. And so the Lord led out of the kingdom of death all those who had believed the Forerunner’s words and had come to believe in Him, the Lord Jesus Christ, for He is the true God in heaven and earth.
The Lord led them out of hell and led them into the Heavenly Kingdom. It is for this reason that the Lord Jesus Christ did not resurrect the holy Forerunner, St. John the Baptist.
Today, in glorifying this great and glorious first apostle, first martyr, first evangelist, and the Forerunner of all true Christians from the beginning of time, we venerate his joyous suffering for Christ’s truth and his preaching, his apostolic endeavor, his holy martyrdom. Behold, it is now almost two thousand years that the one who allowed the iniquitous king to behead him works countless miracles in the world, living in it together with the Lord Jesus Christ. For two thousand years he continuously performs miracles of all the souls who appeal to him with prayer.
Dear brethren, when you are in great sorrow, turn to this great apostle of Christ, and he will help you in all your difficulties. And if some misfortune occurs, turn to this first evangelist. No matter what bitterness may overcome your soul, he will sweeten it with Christ’s grace, which he will send mysteriously from the heavenly world into your tired soul. And when you are amid the temptations and horrors of this earthly life, appeal to this holy confessor, tell him what is in your heart, pour out your sorrows and spiritual needs, and you can be sure that he will come into your soul in a mysterious and divine manner and will save you, will deliver you from all temptations and misfortunes. But if you are due to suffer for the Lord Jesus Christ in this world: you are being attacked on all sides by the ungodly and the anti-Christians, who want to devour you, destroy you for being Christ’s, who want to silence you when you speak of Christ – then think of him, the first martyr, and call out to him: O holy martyr, O first evangelical martyr for Christ, hasten to my aid! Grant that I, too, may die for the Lord Jesus Christ, may discard this body like unwanted clothes, and may move forward into Christ’s kingdom along the path of holy martyrdom! And he will intercede with the Lord for you to enter the ranks of the saints. Thus today’s lesser Great Friday turns into great paschal joy for us. The Friday is lesser, but the resurrection is great – the resurrection of all Christians of all ages. And for all of us today: for me, and for you, and for each current Christian today’s Great Friday is also a resurrection, for we glorify the holy Forerunner, St. John the Baptist, who is eternally alive in heaven – we glorify how he conquered the death brought upon him by Herod, and how he ascended into the celestial world, in order to be the first one, after the Holy Mother of God, to stand alongside the Lord Jesus Christ. You have seen the icon called “Deisis”: the Lord sits on the throne of glory as a Heavenly King, while on His right side is the Holy Mother of God and on his left is the holy Forerunner. Both of them pray to Him on behalf of mankind.
O, may the Baptist’s holy prayers ascend today, and tomorrow, and always; may they ascend for all of us, Christians, and for all the people in this world, that the Lord bring all of them to repentance, show mercy to all of us, save all of them, that all the people, led by the glorious Forerunner, forever venerate the One True God in heaven and on earth, the Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is due honor and glory now and ever, and unto all age of ages. Amen.
(Homily of St. Justin Popovich, leading Serbian theologian of the 20th century.)