Today the Church commemorates the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner- one of very few Feasts in the course of the Liturgical Year upon which we fast (another, of course, being the Elevation of the Holy Cross in September). Now, the person known as Herod about whom we hear in today’s Gospel Reading is actually one of the sons of Herod the Great, the king who murdered 14,000 male babies and young children in and around Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth. However, as this was all inside the limits of the Roman Empire, any king, or ruler, was appointed by Rome- it was not a hereditary position. So, while his father had been king, this particular Herod was actually a governor, and not royalty, although he was raised as though he were. And, because his father, in his position as king, had accumulated vast wealth, Herod, now a grown man and having inherited a portion of his father’s wealth, could afford to set himself up and live like a prince. He had multiple palaces, many servants, and a small army in his employ.
Obviously, though, this was simply not enough, so, when the opportunity presented itself, Herod also made off with his brother Philip’s wife (his brother’s name was actually Herod Philip- much like the former boxer George Foreman, their father King Herod also gave all of his sons his own first name). And, as it happens, this woman, Herodias, was also Herod and Philip’s niece, being the daughter of their elder sister. Quite the “Jerry Springer” kind of family, yet one that played an ongoing role in Christ’s life.
So, as we read in Holy Scripture, St. John publicly denounced the fact that Herod had unlawfully taken his own brother Philip’s wife while Philip yet lived, and in his refusal to back down and not call this sin what it was, the Baptizer earned Herodias’ hatred. She, apparently, began to hire men to kill St. John. Learning of this, Herod had the Baptizer imprisoned, really in order to protect him from the men Herodias was sending to silence him. And while he held St. John captive, the Saint went on preaching, and Herod would go and listen to him, and even began to make changes in his life in response to St. John’s preaching- Scripture says that he “heard him gladly”, and when he did so “he did many things”, in other words, he did the things that St. John was telling him to do. It was at this point, after St. John had been imprisoned for about a year, that the party, and the events of which we heard in today’s Gospel Reading, occurred.
One aspect of this account that is rather striking is found in the short, but telling phrase in verse 20, “... for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man....” Herod feared John. The Notes in the Orthodox Study Bible point out just how remarkable this is- with all of his wealth, with all of his soldiers, Herod feared St. John, a man who literally owned nothing, who lived in poverty and dressed in camel hair. He feared St. John to the point of instantly believing that this Jesus of Nazareth, about Whom he had been hearing, in Whose Name His Apostles had been performing miracles, was really John the Baptizer, risen from the dead. He believed this despite the fact that, as Scripture points out, St. John never performed any miracles. And what makes this belief of Herod’s even more amazing is the fact that Herod was a member of the Sadducees, being of the wealthy class, the group that denied even the possibility of resurrection. So, why was Herod so steadfast in this belief? Because, despite having the worldly power and authority to have the Forerunner imprisoned, and even killed, Herod feared John. Such was the power of the Forerunner’s personal holiness- the greatest of the Prophets- a just and holy man.
To this very day, this Fallen World, of which there is, perhaps, no better a representative than Herod, fears holiness.
And it is precisely to this holiness that St. John was calling people in his preaching- the same call that Jesus Himself took up when He began His own public ministry: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand! Begin to live a life that is worthy, that is befitting of this Kingdom! And the thing that gave St. John such power in his preaching, that even Herod himself began to be swayed by it, was the fact that he practiced what he preached- the Forerunner’s holiness, which was readily apparent to all that met him, was a palpable testimony to it. But note the fact that St. John didn’t tell everyone that came to him that they needed to become destitute, and live in the wilderness with him, in order to become holy. Because he called, and continues to call, all people, including each and every one of us, to holiness, not just those few who actually can live in the wilderness- the monastics. Holiness is a state of being that is accessible to everyone, regardless of where you live or what you do.
How many times have you, brothers and sisters, thought to yourself, “well, it’s nice, it’s good that some people can be holy, that God gives that grace to some people, but I’m just a regular person- I can’t be holy.” Yet that is the exact opposite of the message that the Forerunner continues to bring to us- we, all, each and every one, can be holy. Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ Himself, Whose love for us is beyond measure, told us to “be holy”- He didn’t say, “... oh, well, at least those of you who can.” Holiness is within the reach of each and every one of us. Because, as the old saying goes, holiness does not consist of perfect behavior, but of perfect love. If perfect behavior was the sole criterion for holiness, it would be beyond the grasp of everyone, except our Lord Jesus Christ alone. But, by God’s grace, we are all capable of working toward achieving and participating in perfect love- our love for God Himself, and for one another.
Of course, this perfect love is not some nebulous mental or emotional state, rather, it is something that is made manifest in every aspect of our lives- what we think, say and do. It’s going to work feeding the folks at the Homeless Shelter, and helping out at the Nursing Home. It’s willing to be there for a neighbor who needs you at the most inconvenient time possible. It’s helping out the elderly person, or the sick person, or the single mother, who lives across the street, or down the block, around their house, or buying groceries, without waiting to be asked. It’s praying every day for others- dying to self a little every day, as you sacrifice some of your time to be there for someone else, to be with God.
The more time we spend practicing perfect love, the more capable we become of bearing God’s grace, His very presence, in us, and this is something that other people will notice, long before you see it yourself (God is merciful, isn’t He?). And, we are not without an example, for, as St. Hesychios the Priest teaches, “Through His Incarnation, God gave us the model for a holy life and recalled us from our ancient fall. In addition to many other things, He taught us, feeble as we are, that we should fight against the demons with humility, fasting, prayer, and watchfulness.” And so, for nearly 2000 years the Church has reminded us of the importance of these things- fasting, prayer, watchfulness, and that Queen of Virtues, humility- in our attainment of holiness.
God has made us all capable of this, brothers and sisters! But you have to try. Before you say something, or think something, or do something, ask yourself- am I doing this out of love? If not, don’t do it! Choose to be holy. In your daily prayers, ask God to remind you about this throughout the day, and He will, without doubt, help you, since it is His desire as well that you be holy. This is the message that St. John was killed for bringing, this is the message that he still brings to us today: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand! Be holy, and the Fallen world will fear you, for in you it will see Him Whom it Crucified, and Who rose from the dead- our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who has placed holiness within the reach of all, and to Whom is due all glory, honor and worship, together with His Father without beginning, and His all holy, good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Fr. Gregory Czumak
Four Evangelists Orthodox Parish
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA
Bel Air, MD