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August 29, 2017

Encomium on the Beheading of the Honorable Forerunner (St. Theodore the Studite)

By St. Theodore the Studite

Dear God-fearing Christians, the feast which we have gathered here to celebrate together today is radiant and filled with divine joy. It is rightly called radiant because it shines from the very name of him whom we are honoring today, since he is called the lamp of the light. He is not, of course, a lamp who illumines us with material light, because then his radiance would not be enduring and constant and would be lost every time some obstacle moved in front of it. But it is light that shows the brilliant radiance of divine grace in the depths of the hearts of those who have gathered to celebrate his memory and who elevate their minds to think upon the sufferings of the righteous man, so that gazing with the eyes of our souls upon his blessed martyrdom, we shall be filled with spiritual joy.

But our eyes rejoice at the sight of the blood of every saint, our ears delight to hear their messages of salvation and our lips reverence them. Because their loss grants perfect participation in the immortal and true life. I do not, of course, mean merely a drop of blood, but anything at all from their holy members- a single hair or anything they wore or touched with their hands- is desirable and valuable for those who have decided to believe and to worship God in the proper manner. This is why people who have something like this in their homes or church- that is a complete relic or a part thereof, even a very small piece- consider it a special honor and are proud of it, as if it were a treasure which advances their sanctification and ensures their salvation. And so they approach the reliquary containing the sacred dust with great reverence and touch with awe the sacred relics which are untouchable because of their sanctity.

What more do I need to say than to refer generally to the blood of all the apostles, the martyrs and prophets, which various gory murderers shed in many different ways and which now circles the earth like a rich river and extinguishes impiety?

Such was the blood of the Forerunner and Baptist of Christ, of whom we are speaking today, which he shed from his sacred neck like precious myrrh, which perfumes the whole world. This blood was not engendered by hedonistic gluttony, nor by wine, nor by any of the other foods which fatten the greedy and give them pleasure.

It was created by the grace of abstinence, which the saint practiced from his infancy until his martyr’s death. And as the Lord said, John neither ate nor drank (Matt. 11, 18-19).

This blood was shed before the blood of the Lord, the immortal chalice. Because it was needful that the Forerunner of the Light, who with his radiant birth from a barren mother illumined everyone on earth, should become an effulgent herald also to those who were below the earth, that is in Hell.

This blood has boldness before the Almighty Lord, more than the blood of the righteous Abel. Because every action has within it a mystical voice, which is not produced by the vocal chords but which becomes evident from the power invested in it by the person who performs the action.

This blood is more deserving than that of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and so on), more valuable than the blood of the prophets and more sanctified than the blood of all the righteous. Because it is more wonderful even than the blood of the apostles and of the martyrs. Now these words are not mine; they’re from the Great Word, Jesus Christ, Who gave this testimony concerning the Honorable Forerunner.

It is blood which adorns the Church more beautifully than any decoration with variegated and rare flowers. It was shed for justice at the end of the era when the old law was in force, and became a flower which stands at the entrance of the presence of Christ.

But let us continue now to tell, on the basis of the Holy Gospels, how this blood was shed, by whom and for what cause. According to the Gospel, Herod arrested John, bound him and cast him into prison, because of Herodias, the wife of his brother, Philip. Because John had told him: “You’re not allowed to live with her”. So he wanted to put John to death but was afraid to do so, because all the people considered him a prophet (Matt. 14, 2-5).

Let’s see first who this Herod was, because there are two people with the same name, which is confusing, and we have to be clear who we’re talking about. This one is Herod the Tetrarch. His father, also Herod and the murderer of the Innocents, had died long before [In 4 B. C. Herod I actually had four sons named Herod].

But why did John upbraid him? Because he had abandoned his lawful wife, the daughter of King Aretas, and was living, illicitly, with the wife of his brother Philip. He could, of course, have married her legally, if she hadn’t already had children by his brother, because Mosaic law allowed this in order to provide heirs. But since she wasn’t childless, he couldn’t. She had a daughter who was also called Herodias, the offspring of a viper, the devil’s tool in her perdition. This is why John, quite rightly, rebuked him. This castigation, however, was not hubristic and was not spoken in order to wound Herod’s soul and dignity, but it was more of a reminder, the aim of which was to bring him to his senses.

So what did he say to Herod? “You’re not allowed to live with her”. He reminded him of the divine law, as if saying to him: “Look and see what the Law orders you to do. If there are two brothers and one of them dies without issue, the widow is not allowed to marry a stranger. The brother of the deceased shall marry her and the child who is born will take the name of the deceased, and thus his name will not be lost in Israel (Deut. 15, 5). That’s what the law says. But you’ve taken the wife of your brother and she already has a child. Don’t transgress against the ordinance put in place by the legislator. And don’t soil your royal purple with inadmissible incest. Don’t be seen to be doing something illegal when you should be giving your subjects an example of willing and glad observance of the law. And if you do fall into this error, you’ll be punished, because those in high office are punished more severely”.

But since he’d only recently come to power, Herod forgot about God. He was furious, boiling with rage, and would not accept the rebuke. He did not imitate David, who, when he was chastised by the prophet Nathan for the sin of adultery, said: “I have sinned before you, Lord” (II Kings 12-13). And the Lord forgave him, because of his humility. Herod, on the other hand, had John arrested, bound and cast into prison (Matt. 14, 3). So the one who was a prisoner of the passion of lewdness arrested him who lived in the most sublime freedom, because of his holy life. He who was bound by the magical cords of debauchery, put bonds on him who was liberated from all things, living as he did outside any binding relationship. He who was, in practice, sinking deep into the mire, put in prison him who was the guard and herald of the Church.

For the sake of Herodias, the wife of his brother, Philip (Matt. 14, 9). For the sake of Herodias, who shared the morals of Delilah, a true tool of the devil. Because it was she who encouraged him who shared her bed- or illicit love we should really say- and made him furious with John. She told him: “I’m a queen and I can’t be made a laughing-stock by the son of Zachariah. Imprison the tongue that’s breaking my bones. Stab, at once, him whose words are wounding my soul like arrows”. And although he wanted to put him to death, he didn’t do so because he was afraid of the people, who considered John a prophet and respected him as such (Matt. 14, 5). Because if people in power want to do something illegal, they can’t execute it as soon as they’ve thought of it, for two reasons: first because they’re ashamed and fear their subjects; and second because they wait until the opportunity arises to put into effect the hatred in their souls without risk to themselves.

So while they were celebrating Herod’s birthday, Herodias’ daughter came out in front of them and danced. She pleased Herod very much and he swore to grant her anything she wanted (Matt. 14, 6).

On the day when he ought to have been thanking God for bringing him into the light of this life, he chose the works of darkness.. This was a day meant for spiritual joy, not for dancing, and certainly not for women dancing in front of men. What did this dance produce? The oath. And from that? Murder. Root out evil and lawlessness will not flourish. But if evil does take root, it’ll bear fruit, that is, it’ll be put into effect. Herodias’ daughter danced in the midst of the guests and pleased Herod. What else would the harlot-trained girl have learned from her mother, other than to dance provocatively and with such skill as to please Herod greatly. This is why he swore an oath to grant her whatever she wished. This is how rashly the tongues of people run away with them when they lose themselves in the passions of degradation: they blurt out in front of everyone, without thinking, whatever comes into their mind. The girl, schooled by her mother, brought about the hideous decapitation of Saint John, which the venomous Herodias had been wanting to achieve for a long time. I imagine she would have said: “This is the chance we’ve been looking for, my child. You’ve managed, with your dancing feet, to get him to offer me what I wanted. You’ve ended my pain with your skillful song. Let’s bury the man who’s rebuking us. Go quickly and tell Herod: ‘Give me John the Baptist’s head on a platter’ (Matt. 14, 8). What a ferocious and murderous demand! Even though she didn’t have the right to think and enjoy the spectacle of the murder, she outdid everyone in cruelty. What a crazed murderess! Not content with decapitation, you arranged for the head to be brought to you on a platter. What a depraved and debauched woman! Your brutality outstrips even that of blood-stained Jezebel.

The Gospel tells us that the king was saddened. But because he had sworn an oath and had promised in front of his guests, he ordered that she be given the head. He sent to the prison and had John beheaded. Then they set the head on a platter and brought it to the girl and her mother (Matt. 14, 11).

What an evil end to a diabolical coil! Who aimed the stroke of the deathly sword at the saintly head? A lawless servant, who like another Doeg, did not imitate those Jews who with circumspection and bravery stood up to King Saul when he ordered them to murder God’s prophets. “And they brought the head of John on a platter”. What should we call this revel? A banquet or the scene of a murder? What should we call the addlepated guests? Fellow diners or blood-stained participants?

What an unprecedented sight! What a sinful sight! On the one hand, they were offering chicken and, on the other, a platter with the head of a prophet. From one side, rich clear wine was flowing and from the other the blood of a righteous man was gushing.

How terrible it is for me to say it and dreadful to express!

“And they gave it to the girl and she took it to her mother”. What a sinful sight! Alas! How utterly macabre! The invaluable head was exchanged for a worthless action; the pure and inviolate head, worthy of respect even from the angels, was given for an accursed and impious act. And she handed it to her mother as if she were giving her well-cooked food. To her who in her manic fury had directed the death, as if the child were saying: “Here you are, mother, meat of the flesh of him who lived on earth as if fleshless. Drink the blood of the faster. Once and for all we’ve now shut the mouth of him who rebuked us”.

According to the Gospel, his disciples then came, took away his body and buried it (Matt. 14, 13). Those of you who love history, look at how the burial of this righteous man is depicted and gives the lie to those enemies of the holy icons, who are also enemies of the truth. Fix the story in your minds and draw useful conclusions. How they took the saint, bound in heavy chains, from the prison How the executioner, like a wild animal, raised the sword against the holy head. How, after the beheading, the myrrh-exuding head was offered to the raving Herodias. And also how the sacred body was buried by the hands of his disciples, who all stood there, in tears, with a pain that tore at their souls. How one embraced the feet of the saint, another tried to fit the head back on to the motionless body and another sang funeral hymns while censing the body.

Now I’m there in my mind’s eye and can see the funeral of the righteous man taking place in an atmosphere of peace, as is mentioned in the Prophet Isaiah [57, 1-2: “See how the just man has perished and no one takes it to heart, and righteous men are taken away and no-one considers it. For the righteous man has been removed by injustice. His burial shall be in peace”]. I envision that angelic face, whose eyes have set like two shining suns and on which all the beauty of his soul has been imprinted. Without any fleeting and earthly breath, but full of the overpowering fragrance of divine grace. I kiss those holy hands, which never touched sin and the finger that pointed people to Christ, Who took upon Himself the sin of the whole world. I fall down before those beautiful feet, which told the good news to people and through which the way of the presence of the Lord was prepared. Bring me, so that I may reverence it, the honorable chain with which the most precious and angel-like of men was bound. Bring me the venerable platter on which the revered head- more precious than gold and jewels- was placed. Had I been there, I wouldn’t have omitted to pay my respects to the murderous sword which sliced through the holy neck, nor would I have hesitated to cover with kisses the ground where the treasure was laid, in the certainty that this, too, would bring me divine grace. Blessed grave and joyous tomb-stone, that cover the thrice-blessed corpse and wrap the body more precious than a mass of emeralds and pearls.

So at this scene there were the visible company of his disciples and an invisible host of angels, praising, glorifying and hymning John, bearing to eternal joy him who lived as a bodiless angel and foretold the coming of the Messiah. He who was a genuine friend of the Lord, who guided the Church to the celestial Bridegroom, the undimmed lamp of the ineffable light, the living voice of God the Word, who was superior to the prophets, greater than any man ever born of woman. The burial of this righteous man, then, was peaceful, as we’ve described it, a harbinger of joy and salvation to the whole world.

So did the insane Herod manage to escape punishment for his profanity for the rest of his life on earth? Of course not. On the contrary, because of this misdeed, all his subjects rose up against him and he was deposed. In this way, God wanted to frighten and admonish later kings, to prevent them committing similar crimes. But to return to our theme, let us acclaim this day as is proper.

Today, John the Forerunner is praised because he sacrifices his head for the truth, and Herod the transgressor is ridiculed and mocked. Today, John the Forerunner is lauded by all for his stern rebuke, and the insane Herod is dishonored through his adultery. Today, the head of John the Forerunner is offered as a sacred sacrifice on a platter, and the adulteress Herodias, against her will, receives eternal condemnation. Today, the blood of John the Forerunner is shed because he observed the divine law and he who opposed the Baptist by breaking the law is rightly driven out. Today, because of forthrightness towards Herod, John the Forerunner is beheaded for upholding righteousness.

This is the way the kings of the earth learn not to put away their lawful wives and they condemn him who did so. Today, John the Baptist plants a landmark in the ground and urges all men to be satisfied with their lawful wife and to go no further than that. Today, John the Forerunner descends into Hell and the dead receive the glad tidings of the presence of Christ. Today, the heavens rejoice over the decapitation of John the Forerunner, who was sacrificed for God’s justice; while people on earth celebrate with hymns of thanksgiving. And in my view, the Honorable Forerunner is watching us from the heavens and rewarding with divine gifts those who praise him with hymns. Among the choir of the prophets, like the morning star, he rises and illumines the firmament of the Church. Among the apostles, before them and more than them he shines as a sun among suns. Among the martyrs, he is distinguished for his miracles, like a star-decked sky. Among the righteous he stands out for the many trials he suffered, for the sake of justice, and he who spread joy throughout the world is elevated higher than the cedars of Lebanon.

Because if, according to Saint Luke (2, 10) many people rejoiced at his birth, the joy on this the day of his martyr’s death should be equivalent. We have been found worthy to celebrate it, all of us, priests, hermits, coenobites and lay people, because everyone has a share in the joy his message provides. And may his intercessions be even more with us, who live in this holy monastery, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

To Whom is due glory and power, together with the Father and the All-Holy and Life-Giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the unending ages of ages. Amen.

(Source: Part I, Part II, Part III)