Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

On August 29, Orthodox Christians commemorate the violent martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, also known as St. John the Forerunner (as he was the forerunner for Jesus Christ). For much of the Orthodox world, August 29 on the church calendar falls on September 11 on the civil calendar. As an American convert to Orthodox Christianity, I find it fitting that one date (September 11) can be a day of mourning on two very different levels (the other needing no introduction). Among the ways that the Orthodox remember this day is by fasting from certain foods, and furthermore (don't laugh) by refraining from eating off of plates (St. John's head was served on a platter). While the time of St. John's beheading was around the time of Passover, in spring, the commemoration of his martyrdom was fixed in August (old calendar) in conjunction with a church dedication in his honor.

One of the troparions (hymns) for the day is as follows:

The memory of the righteous is celebrated with hymns of praise,
But the Lord's testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner.
You were shown in truth to be the most honorable of the prophets,
For you were deemed worthy to baptize in the streams of the Jordan Him whom they foretold.
Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy,
You proclaimed to those in hell God who appeared in the flesh,
Who takes away the sin of the world, and grants us great mercy.

If you're wondering about the last two lines, the Orthodox Church teaches that just as St. John was the forerunner for Christ on earth, he was also, appropriately, the forerunner of Christ in Hades.

Last summer I had the opportunity to explore the location of Herod Antipas' palace, known as Mukawir, in the modern nation of Jordan, just 9 miles east of the Dead Sea. According to the Gospels, it was here that St. John, who had been imprisoned, was beheaded at the request of Herodias (Herod's unlawful wife) and Salome (her daughter). The hilltop of Mukawir is not terribly large, but some basic ruins are still available to be seen. The most stirring, or even chilling, part of my exploration was when I found several caves, complete with ancient stairwells. No one cave has been definitively proven to be the location of the beheading, but I took a photo of one that is, in my mind, a prime candidate.

As a final thought, I find it interesting and somehow fitting that the commemoration of the death of the last of the Old Testament-generation prophets falls three days before the church's celebration of the ecclesiastical new year (September 1 / September 14)... read into that what you will.

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