metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Beheading of St. John the Baptist

11 September 1969
Theme: The feasts of the Church, Faith, Doubt   Place: London Parish   Period: 1966-1970   Genre: Sermon

In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

We are accustomed to turn to God for help in any necessity, in any event in our lives. And we expect that God will come to our aid at every cry of sorrow, suffering or fear and will protect and console us; and we know that He does so constantly and that He demonstrated His greatest concern for us by becoming a man and dying for our sakes. But it does happen the life of this world that God turns for help to man. This happens time and again but often it is hardly perceptible, or passes quite unnoticed. Constantly God turns to each one of us asking, praying, persuading us to be His living presence, His living concern in this world. He tells us that whatever good we may do for anyone, we do for Him, calling us thereby as though to take His place here. But sometimes He calls certain people to serve Him in a more personal way. In the Old Testament we read about the prophets; Amos the prophet tells us that a prophet is a man with whom God shares his thoughts; but not only His thoughts, His works as well. You remember the prophet Isaiah who in a vision saw God looking around and saying “whom shall I send?” And Isaiah rose and said, “Send me, Lord”. Yet among the prophets, among the people who have served God with an undivided heart, with all the might of their souls, there is one whom God has called the greatest of those born on earth — that is John the Baptist. Indeed, when one considers his destiny, it seems there is no other more impressive or more tragic. His whole destiny lay, so to speak, in not being, in order that the consciousness of people should be filled with the only One who is — the Lord (so that people should become aware of the only One Who is the Lord).

Remember the first thing that is said about John in the Gospel of St. Mark — “He is the voice of one crying in the wilderness”. He is only a voice, so much has he become one with his service and vocation; he has become just the voice of God, just a bearer of good tidings, as though the man of flesh and blood who yearns and suffers, prays and searches, does not exist. He and his vocation are one and the same. He is the voice of God in the human desert, the desert where souls are empty, because though there were people surrounding John, the desert remained unchanged.

The Lord Himself says of him in the Gospel that he is the friend of the Bridegroom; the friend who so devotedly loves the Bridegroom and his Bride, that he is capable of serving their love, forgetful of self, so as never to be in the way, never to be there when he is not wanted. He is the friend who is able to protect their love and yet remain outside, the guardian of the mystery of that love. Here also is the great mystery of the man who is able not to be, so to speak, in order that a greater than he might be. And he says of himself in relation to the Lord “I must decrease in order that He should increase”. “People must forget about me and remember only Him; my disciples must turn away and leave me (like Andrew and John on the banks of Jordan) in order to follow Him only, with an undivided heart”.

But at the end is a terrible picture of John when he was already in prison, when the circle of approaching death was closing round him, when there was no way out, and that exceedingly great soul wavered. Life, in which nothing had been his own, was coming to an end. Behind him was the great denial of self, and before him darkness. And in that moment when his spirit wavered, he sent his disciples to ask of Christ “Are you the One we were expecting?” If He was the One, then it was worth dying even in youth. If He was the One, it was worth growing less year by year in order that he, John, should be forgotten and only the image of the Coming One should fill men’s eyes. If He was the One, it was worth dying this last death, because everything for which he had lived was done and fulfilled. But supposing He was not the One; then all was lost, youth and the great strength of maturity was wasted, everything was pointless; and what was most terrifying of all was that God who had called him in the wilderness, who had led him away from people and inspired his effort of self annihilation, had apparently deceived him. And even then, having sent his disciples to Christ with the question “are you He?” he did not receive a plain, comforting answer. Christ did not answer simply “Yes, I am the One, go in peace”. He only answered the prophet in the words of another prophet, “the blind see, the lame walk, the dead rise again, and beggars proclaim the good news”. He answers in the words of Isaiah, without adding His own, except for the stern warning: “Blessed is he whoever shall not be offended in me.” And that was the answer that reached John when he was awaiting death. Have faith to the end, have faith without demanding witness or proof or sign. Have faith because you heard in the depths of your heart the voice of God commanding you to do a prophet’s work. Those others are in some way able to depend on God’s help in their often tremendous effort. But God supported John only to the extent of commanding him to be the forerunner and therefore show the greatest faith, and the certainty in things unseen. This is why we catch our breath whenever we think of him; and this is why when we think of boundless spiritual achievement, we remember John, This is why of those born among men by natural birth and raised wonderfully by grace, John is the greatest.

We keep the day of St. John the Forerunner’s beheading as a festival. We are accustomed to think of a feast day as a joyful occasion, but in Russian the word means “to be free, of work”, and one can be without work because the heart is swamped with joy and the ordinary workday routine is out of place. But it can be that the same result comes from grief and horror. Such is this feast. On this day when we are overcome, by the full horror and dignity of John’s destiny, the church calls us to pray for all those who have died in horror, fear, uncertainty (perplexity, dread) and even despair — on the field of battle or in captivity, dying the lonely death of man. Let us pray for all those who have died on the field of battle that others might live. Let us remember those who through the centuries, and not only in our own time, have died a fearful death because they were capable of loving, or because others were incapable of loving, for God’s love embraces everyone. And interceding for all stands the great John, who went through the tragedy of sacrifice, dying and death to the end without one word of comfort and only the imperious command — “Believe to the end and be faithful to the end”.

Published: Newsletter N. 21. September 1971

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