One of the few saints who has multiple feasts throughout the year, we discuss the second feast of St. John the Baptist: his beheading.
August 29 is the day the Holy Catholic Church commemorates the Beheading (or Decollation) of St. John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas. It is widely considered to be one of the oldest feasts for any saint introduced to the liturgical calendar. Here is an excerpt of a reflection on the Baptist’s beheading by St. Ambrose of Milan which, traditionally, comprised the readings for the Second Nocturn of Matins.
We must not hurry by the record of the Blessed Baptist John. We must ask what he was, adulterers. The guilty passed upon their judge the sentence of death. Moreover, the death of the Prophet was the fee of a dancing-girl. And lastly, there was a feature about it from which even savages shrink; the order for completing the atrocity was given amid the merriment of a dinner-party. From banquet to prison, from prison to banquet, that was the course run by the servants of the murderer. How many horrors does this simple crime embrace within its details?
Who is there, that, on seeing the messenger hasten from the dinner-table to the prison, would not have forthwith concluded that he carried an order for the Prophet's release. If anyone had heard that it was Herod's birthday, and that he was giving a great feast, and that he had offered a damsel the choice of whatever she listed, and that thereupon a messenger had been sent to John's dungeon. If any one, I say, had heard this, what would he have supposed? He would have concluded that the damsel had asked and obtained John's freedom. What have executions in common with dinners, or death with gaiety? While the banquet was going on, the Prophet was hurried to death, by an order from the reveller whom he had not troubled even by a prayer for release. He was slain with the sword, and his head was served up in a plate. This was the new dish demanded by a cruelty which the Feast had been powerless to glut.
Look, savage King, look at a decoration which suiteth well with thy banquet. Put out thine hand, so as to lose no part of the luxury of cruelty, and let the streams of the sacred blood run between thy fingers. Thine hunger the dinner hath been unable to satisfy, thy cups have not been able to quench thine inhuman thirst. Suck, suck the blood which the still palpitating veins are discharging from the place where the neck has been severed. Look at the eyes. Even in death they remain the eyes of a witness of thine uncleanness, but they are closing themselves upon the spectacle of thy pleasures. Those eyes indeed are shutting but it seems not so much from the laws of natural death, as from horror at the scene of thine enjoyment. The golden mouth, whose bloodless lips are silent now, can repeat no more the denunciation which thou couldest not bear to hear, and still thou art afraid of it.
Eastern Christian tradition has long held John the Baptist with the greatest esteem, emphasizing his angelic purity by placing wings on his back in their icongraphic depictions of the saint. Tradition teaches that he was purified from original sin in his mother's womb by the visit of his divine cousin on the day of the Visitation. As St. John preached penance as the best way to receive the Savior, it should come as little surprise that his beheading is remembered with mourning and lamentation, though also an opportunity to ask the Forerunner of Christ for his protection and prayers. This is well captured in several Byzantine hymns (Aposticha) which are chanted at Vespers on the evening of August 28.
O John the Baptist, preacher of repentance, when thy head was cut off thou didst sanctify the earth, for thou didst make the law of God clear to the faithful and didst uproot iniquity. And, standing before the throne of Christ the King, entreat Him, that He have mercy upon our souls.
For the sake of the law of the Lord thy head was cut off, O most holy John. Thou didst denounce the impious king who committed iniquity with vile audacity. Wherefore, the armies of the angels marvel at thee, the choirs of the apostles and martyrs glorify thee, and we honor thine annual commemoration, O most glorious one, glorifying the Holy Trinity, Who hath crowned thee, O blessed forerunner.
Today the prophet among the prophets, the greatest of the prophets, who was sanctified to the service of the Lord from his mother's womb, was beheaded by the iniquitous king. And openly denouncing the girl who danced impiously, both before and after his beheading, he put a host of sins to shame. Wherefore, we cry out: O John the Baptist, as thou hast boldness, pray thou earnestly in behalf of our souls."
May St. John the Baptist, a bold witness to Christ who refused to genuflect before the sinful powers of this world, continue to serve as an example of fortitude to all faithful Catholics in these troubling and uncertain times. Let us pray to him in particular for faithfulness in our families and the repentance of those who have broken their vows. For though among us there may rise up leaders and politicians demanding obedience while upholding sin, we must follow the Baptist in renouncing such error and pledge our fealty to Christ our King and Redeemer.