49 - The Gospel of the Beheading of John the Baptist, Aug 29, 2021

Acts 13.25-33

Mark 6.14-30

John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the prophets. He revealed the WORD of God to the people not in a vision as had all the prophets before him, but in the flesh. Moses and the prophets saw the LORD, they heard the LORD; He was the Heavenly Pattern of which the Tabernacle and its worship was the copy, that was shown to Moses on the Mountain (Ex 25.9&40). He was the WORD of God who spoke to them and whose words to them, which they either heard or saw, they wrote down.

But John baptized the Heavenly Pattern who came to him in the flesh, he immersed in the waters of the Jordan the WORD of God who spoke to him as the Son of God incarnate. John baptized the LORD incarnate not in a copy but in the flesh. That is, his baptism of the LORD was not a copy of the Heavenly Pattern; it was the Heavenly Pattern shown to Moses on the Mountain. John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan was a most sacred moment in time that descended beyond time into the Day of the LORD that comprehends the creation and Sabbath Rest of God, the Passover and Exodus of Israel, and the true Pascha of God, His crucifixion and burial, and His Sabbath Rest in the Tomb in which He worked our salvation in the midst of the earth (Ps 74.12), destroying death by His death and upon those in the tombs bestowing His own divine life.

In the preaching of John the Baptist and in his baptizing the LORD, one sees the ‘Icon’ (cf. Heb 10.1) or the ‘Heavenly Pattern’, the true reality of which the mystery of Mt Sinai (Ex 24-25) is the ‘copy’ or ‘typos’. (cf. Ex 25.9&40) In his preaching, John the Baptist is like Moses reading the Book of the Covenant in the hearing of the people (Ex 24.7). In baptizing the LORD, he is like Moses sacrificing the calves on the altar and sprinkling the ‘blood of the covenant’ on the people (Ex 24.4-8). And when he saw the heavens open, and the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and he heard the voice of the Father that sounded like thunder, one wonders if this is the Mystery in which Moses saw on the Mountain the place where the God of Israel stood (Ex 24.10). There, it says, Moses and the elders of the people ate and drank with the LORD [the mystery of Holy Eucharist]. Then the LORD called Moses with Joshua (Jesus) up to the top of the mountain to give him the Law that He had already inscribed on the tablets of stone. (Ex 24.9&10f.) That is, the Law God gave to Moses is the Law of creation established in the heavens.

They saw on the mountain the place where the God of Israel stood. Did they see in mystical outline the God of Israel standing on the footstool of His Throne, the Cross on Golgotha? For Golgotha is the mountain on which the LORD stood on His Cross which is His Footstool, as we are given to understand from the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (Sept 14). And the Lamb of God that was slain is Himself the perfection of the Law (Rm 10.4) in whom and by whom and through whom the heaven and the earth and everything in it was created. (Jn 1.1, Col 1.15f, et al.) His death on the Cross is the ‘Heavenly Pattern’ of which the Law of Moses, centered on the Temple and its sacrificial offerings, was the ‘copy’ (Ex 25.9&40, Heb 8.5). It is the Foundation (e.g., Rev 13.8 et al.) and so it is the Beginning, it is the Law of creation in which creation has been established so that it shall never be moved. (Ps 93.1) And, if John baptizing Christ is the mystery of the LORD’s Pascha, as the Church teaches us, the Cross must be what the Baptist saw when the Heavens were opened.

But, you say, it says that the Baptist saw the Spirit of God resting upon the Christ in the form of a dove (Jn 1.32). Yes! And what does the icon of Theophany show? The Dove, with its wings outstretched, is in the form of the Cross! His death on the Cross and His burial, as was His conception in the womb of the Virgin, was saturated with the living waters of the Holy Spirit (Jn 7.37-38). And you also, when you were baptized, were anointed with the fragrant Chrism, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a cross. Your conception in the Font as a child of God, and also now your death that by your baptism is now united to Christ in the likeness of His death, is saturated with the Living Waters of the Holy Spirit!

Under the LORD’s feet, it says, Moses and the elders on the mountain saw as it were a work of sapphire (deep blue) slabs and, as it were, the appearance of the firmament of heaven in its purity (Ex 24.10). Did they see in mystical outline the mystery of the Virgin Mary Theotokos (Her color is sapphire) standing at the foot of the LORD God’s Cross? Is She not the reality of the firmament of heaven in its purity? All of creation rejoices in Her, for the LORD God made Her body into a throne. Her womb He made more spacious than the Heavens when He came down to Her, the Holy Mountain as the Church recognizes Her in liturgical texts, as He had come down to Mt Sinai, and He knit Himself with Her pure blood to become the Son of Man, the Prince of Israel—which takes us to the vision of the prophet, Ezekiel. He saw the God of Israel enter as the Prince of Israel the Temple of the Last Day through the Gate of the Temple that remained shut before and after He entered, which the Church in the Holy Spirit sees as the mystery of the Virgin conceiving and bearing a Child, Immanuel, prophesied by Isaiah to King Ahaz, the ancestor of Christ, the Virgin-born Son of God! (Isa 7.14) In his vision, Ezekiel saw the Prince, the God of Israel, eating bread before the LORD in the Temple. (Ez 44.2-4) How can one not see in this Messianic prophetic vision, the incarnate WORD of God, Jesus Christ, eating bread before the LORD God, His Heavenly Father, with the tax collectors and sinners, and when He fed the multitudes on the Mountain, and when He broke bread with His disciples at the Last Supper, in the Temple of His Body (Jn 2.19-21) that He received from His Holy Virgin Mother?

Perhaps now we begin to see why the LORD told Peter, James and John when they came down from the Mountain of His Transfiguration that John the Baptist is the Elijah the prophets had spoken of. For the coming of John the Baptist signals the coming of the LORD on the Last Day, as it was said of the prophet Elijah. I am therefore all the more struck by these references in the prophets to an ‘eschatological’ meal with the LORD: Moses and the elders eating and drinking with the LORD on the mountain, the Prince and God of Israel in Ezekiel’s vision eating bread in the Temple whose virginal Gate remained shut.

For, this Prophet who is the Forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist, is beheaded at a meal. This meal with its lascivious entertainment and sickening gruesome end is a meal of the anti-Christ, and so it was an anti-Eucharist of the Antichrist. The Church in her liturgical texts calls it a ‘banquet of blood,’ the blood of murder. The Eucharist is also a banquet of blood, but the blood of God that has been transfigured by His death and resurrection into a ‘bloodless’ sacrifice. Drinking of it we do not die but live for it is the Life of God that we drink and drinking it, we are made to become partakers of the divine nature.

So, this meal at which the Prophet and Forerunner of Christ is beheaded gives us to understand that, gathered round the meal of the Church’s Holy Eucharist, the faithful are today and have been ever since they crucified the LORD of Glory, gathered round Our LORD on the Last Day proclaimed by all the prophets.

If, then, the word of John the Baptist’s preaching still sounds in the Church, in the mystery of the Body of Christ, in the mystery of the LORD’s First Coming, it must be that his word goes forth now not just into Hades to proclaim to the captives there that the coming of the LORD is very near when the LORD will descend into hell in the terrible mystery of His Cross—as the Church’s liturgical texts teach us—but it goes forth now in the preaching of the apostles into all the world (Ps 19.3) to proclaim to all those here walking in the age of this world, who are captives to the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2.2), to make straight their crooked paths and to prepare for the LORD’s Second Coming. It must be that the axe is still laid to the root of the tree (Lk 3.9) for the LORD is coming again and He will not tarry. But when He comes again, He will not descend from the Footstool of His Throne, His Cross on Golgotha, but from the Throne of His Glory in the Heavens. He will come again this time not as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1.29), but as the sovereign Judge of the living and the dead when He will separate the wheat from the chaff. (Mt 3.12)

The Law came through Moses, says St John. Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ (Jn 1.17). Christ is the end, the goal, the perfection [telos] of the Law, says St Paul (Rm 10.4). He is the Icon or the True Reality of which the Law was the shadow. (Heb 10.1) Bearing witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the Baptist bears witness to the Name of God, He Who Is (Ex 3.14), who was revealed to Moses in the Burning Bush (Ex 3.4), and who is now revealed in the flesh He received from His Mother, the Virgin Theotokos (‘She who is’ the Burning Bush). The Name of God now incarnate, Jesus Christ is the only-begotten God who made the Father known (Jn 1.18) first in the beauty of creation (Rm 1.20), and now, in these Last Days, in the Grace and Truth of the extreme humility of His death on the Cross and burial. So that when He comes again, as St Paul says, we will be without excuse (Rm 1.20). As liturgical texts say repeatedly: our own conscience will condemn us!

The Church’s commemoration of the beheading of John the Baptist, then, carries the warning of John the Baptist’s preaching, but transposed now to a higher key: the LORD is coming again, not in meekness as the Lamb of God but in power and glory as the divine Judge, His winnowing fork in His Hand. (Mt 3.12)

In the theology of the beheading of John the Baptist, perhaps we begin to see with new eyes the mystery of the Church’s Holy Eucharist. St Paul says: ‘As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.’ (1Co 11.26)

We proclaim the LORD’s death on the Cross by which He demonstrated the unfathomable compassion of His extreme humility and took our sins upon Himself and delivered us from the power of the devil. But we proclaim that He is risen from the dead, trampling down death by His death, and that He created in us a clean heart, and gave us His own Flesh and Blood as our food and drink, and that He put into us a new and right Spirit for a purpose: to prepare us for His Second Coming on the Last Day when He will come again to judge the world that He made.

At the Holy Eucharist of the Church’s Holy Liturgy, we eat and drink with the LORD the eschatological meal of the prophets in the place where He, the God of Israel stood—on His Holy Cross, so that, united with Christ in the likeness of His death, we may be delivered from the Judgment in the likeness of His Resurrection. In the Church, John the Baptist has not been silenced by his beheading. Herodias failed in her mad effort to extinguish the Light of Christ that shone in the word of his preaching. But, if you have believed in the LORD, if you have been united to Him in Holy Baptism, if you have eaten His Flesh and drunk His Blood so that His Life now lives in you, then you are not your own. You have been bought with a price. Let us not take lightly the mystery of our salvation in Christ. In the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near. That is, ‘Repent, for the LORD’s Second Coming is at hand!’

And if you find yourself wanting to ask the Baptist, what shall we do, may the LORD bless you! It is a sign that you are rousing from soul-destroying sloth! Remember what John said to the multitudes, the tax collectors, and to the soldiers who asked him the same question. His advice to each was different, to fit each one’s particular station and circumstance. The holy fathers help us to discern the common thread that runs through the different advice John gave to each person. Straighten out the paths of your life. That is, be morally pure, be honest and faithful, be responsible, be disciplined, guard your tongue, be watchful, sober and pure in your thoughts. Be kind, be generous, don’t give in to anger or to lust, forgive as you have been forgiven, strive after humility and contrition of heart and mind. Change your surroundings insofar as you are able so that you are surrounded by what is pure and noble, and be discriminating in what you allow your eyes to see, your ears to hear, your mouth to eat and drink. For these are gates into your soul or into the sanctuary of the temple of your body, and the images you allow through them will shape your soul either in the likeness of the world if not the evil one, or in the likeness of God. They will make your body into either a pagan temple filled with the stench of idols and their demons, or a Temple of God, infused with the fragrance of the Icon (Col 1.15) and His Holy Spirit. And begin to call on the Name of the LORD Jesus Christ in the maternal love of His Holy Mother! And in the ascetical life of prayer, walk in the Light of Christ that is within you and no more in the darkness of this age. May the LORD have mercy on us! Even so, Maranatha! Come quickly, LORD Jesus! Amen!