Sermon: Beheading of St John the Baptist

Beheading of St John the Baptist

Mark 6:14-30

I would like to say a few words as we commemorate one of the greatest saints of our Church, St John the Baptist. In particular, today we celebrate the beheading of St John the Baptist.

He was not a common human being. He was, in human terms, super human because he was able to spend his entire life in the desert. Tradition holds that he entered the desert at three years of age, when Herod decided to slaughter all the children who were under the age of three. And when it was the right time, he appeared at the River Jordan and he started to preach, he started to say “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. And he would call people to prepare themselves. That’s why he’s called the Forerunner, because he prepared the way of the Lord. And he teaches us that we must also prepare our hearts so that we may receive the Lord. And all of his instruction and all of his teaching pivoted around the notion of repentance.

Repentance does not have a moral value, but an existential value. In the Orthodox tradition, we understand repentance not as feeling sorry or guilty for the wrong acts that we have performed in our lives, but repentance implies a change of heart, a change of mind, and a change of my way of life. Repentance is not something we do once in our life, it is a continuous act in our life. There are even rumours from the Fathers that repentance continues into eternity, in the sense that we are always open to the Lord’s presence. When we reject the Lord, that’s when we lose that spirit of repentance.

The whole personality of St John the Baptist was defined by a particular virtue, which is considered precious in the Orthodox faith, the Christian faith, namely humility. St Isaac the Syrian says that humility is the vestment of our Lord. God put on this vestment in order to become like us, to identify himself with us. He humbled himself in taking the form of a human being. St John the Baptist was defined by humility. Out of all the virtues that he held, this was the one that characterises him the most. When Jesus appeared, he would say to the people that, “He must increase, but I must decrease…but in this my joy is complete” (John 3:30, 29). How many of us can say, when we see somebody increasing in value, somebody who is performing well, while we are not performing so well, how many of us can sense within our heart great joy for that person who is increasing. Great humility is necessary in order to feel that joy, to express and experience this joy. St John the Baptist had this joy, and he felt unworthy even to stoop down, to bend down and to loosen the shoes of Christ. And he would say to the people, “He who comes after me was before me”, pointing out to the people that, “He is much greater than me”. And when Jesus appears in the River Jordan to be baptised, he himself knelt before the Lord and pleaded with him that he would be baptised by him. But Jesus said, “Let all righteousness be fulfilled”.

So let us, dear brothers and sisters, on the occasion of the beheading of St John the Baptist remember him in this way, and also fulfil the virtue of humility in our life. It is not a weakness to practice humility. It is not shameful. But it is a great honour to learn to be humble. Because the Lord himself showed great humility and pointed out the greatness of St John on the basis of his humility: “There is no greater man born of woman than St John the Baptist”. Let us therefore embrace this virtue and practice it.

I’ll finish with a saying from the Fathers: If someone wants to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he must stoop down, because the door is very low. It is the door of humility. Amen.

Archimandrite Chrysostomos Michaelides