August 29 is the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. It is a solemn day, with a story well-attested in the Holy Scriptures, long honored by the Church (though only recently recognized by the Episcopal Church, for some reason).
The Holy Forerunner's death is deeply connected to the story of his nativity (June 24) and the his father Zechariah's prophesy in Luke. It is also directly connected to Christ's nativity and our Savior's embodiment of Truth. We encounter the Baptist's significance and ministry each time we pray the Benedictus Dominus Deus at Morning Prayer -- which, depending on which canticle one uses, could be just about each morning.
Throughout the year, John plays a central part in the story of salvation. In Advent he heralds the coming Messiah by calling all to repent and prepare. His baptism of Christ is central to the entire logic and purpose of Epiphanytide. His boldness and proclamation of repentance is recalled again in Lent. His promise that the One he heralds will bring the Holy Spirit with fire binds Advent to Pentecost.
This omnipresence in the Church year mirror's John’s centrality to the Gospel narrative, from the beginning of Mark through the opening of the Book of Acts. His fierce insistence on divine truth and faithfulness in the face of earthly power is a foundation on which Jesus built and upon which the Christian Church’s ministry of prophetic witness flourishes. Because of his utter fidelity to God’s call, he died a martyr’s death – prefiguring Christ's death at the hands of unjust leaders, as well as the countless other who follow in his footsteps to this day. Indeed, our day has seen the making of a vast number of martyrs, many beheaded in much the same manner as the Blessed Forerunner -- hidden away in dungeon and "secure locations."
John's witness with regard to the interaction of faith and political power speaks to us in especially potent ways today. His uncompromising commitment to telling the truth in the face of overwhelming secular power sets the standard for authentic Christian life -- and shows how weak and hypocritical many in the Church (lay and ordained, then and now) are when dealing with "the powers that be" when the Church becomes enmeshed with the "power of the sword."
When John said to Herod “you cannot have her” with regard to Herod’s liaison with Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip, it was too much. John was just possibly endurable when he was taking on the religious leaders, but here he was crossing the line into the lane where the traffic is fast and unmerciful. Herodias, tired of Herod’s anxious shilly-shallying about John, wanted this meddling holy man dead and found a way to achieve it. Using the occasion of a drunken birthday party, she slyly planted her daughter as dancing bait for Herod’s inebriate lust. Wildly making public promises of largesse, Herod was in her debt…and Herodias's daughter took him down like an experienced hustler takes down a green rube just off the bus from Nowheresville. In the time it took for the music to stop, Herod was in over his head, and John was without his. The message was clear: Don’t get in the way of powerful people when reputation, politics, and personal cred are on the line. This is ever the case.
The portrait of arrogance, privilege, decadence, and drunkenness emerging here is remarkably appropriate to current events. With so many Christians being willing to go along with Herod's "might-makes-right" reasoning, and with nearly idolatrous levels of support given to politicians very much Herod's kin in terms of behavior by many "Christian" leaders as well as the rank-and-file, one could well imagine John the Baptist's head being lopped off with their quiet nod today. He would have to go, you see: he made the base angry.
The teaching potential of this holy day is great. It shows that to confront evil, we need endurance. Sometimes, it seems that evil actually wins; but its victory—like Herodias’s -- is only apparent. In reality, God’s power and truth is finally completely victorious. It survives continual assault as a vision and a desire. God's vision will forever keep popping up, no matter how many are "cancelled" by silencing or decollation.
What is needed is an ongoing commitment to Gospel justice, even in the face of evil’s awful array of violence, lies, distortion, and corruption. To the last drop, the last moment, the last sentence, St. John the Baptist witnessed to such a commitment. This is why we keep this day.
This day reminds us that by following Jesus Christ as Lord (whom John heralded), we share in this revolutionary ministry of truth-telling.
If we in the ordinary congregations of the Church take this vocation seriously, maybe even the so-called "leaders" of a heavily-compromised American Christianity follow the Holy Truth-Teller until the day when all lies are exposed and all elites humbled. Then the tragedy of this day will be crowned with true glory. As it is, we journey on in hope and faithfulness.
A Collect for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist
God our Father, you called John the Baptist to be the herald of your Son's birth and death. As he gave his life in witness to truth and justice, so may we strive to profess our faith in your Gospel. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.