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Our Faith: The Beheading of the Forerunner

Posted by Tyler Dykstra on

When Saint John the Forerunner (also known as John the Baptist) was beheaded by Herod, his head was placed on a platter and given to his daughter at the request of her mother. The masterfully-composed liturgical hymns for this commemoration are unsettling in their descriptions of the scene:

As shameless Herod’s birthday was being celebrated, the terms of the oath to the wanton dancing girl were fulfilled; for the head of the Forerunner was struck off and brought in on a dish like a delicacy for those at table. O hateful banquet, full of impious behaviour and bloodthirsty murder! But we, as we fittingly honour the Baptist as greatest among the offspring of women, call him blessed.

She danced, the disciple of the all-evil devil, and took your head, O Forerunner, as her wages. O banquet filled with blood! If only you had not sworn, lawless Herod, offspring of falsehood. But if you had sworn, if only you had not kept your oath; for it was better to have lied and attained life, than to speak truly and to cut off the head of the Forerunner. But we, as we fittingly honour the Baptist as greatest among the offspring of women, call him blessed.

You should not, Herod, have condemned to death the one who denounced your adultery, the result of satanic love and the insane passion of lust for a woman. You should not have perilously handed over his all-honoured head to a lawless woman because of an oath made for a dance. How did you dare to accomplish such a murder? How was the wanton dancing girl not consumed by fire in the middle of the banquet as she brought this head in on a dish? But we, as we fittingly honour the Baptist as greatest among the offspring of women, call him blessed. (Vespers for August 29)

Holiness is a transformative power, an objective reality, and it is infused into matter itself. For this reason, we venerate holy objects and the relics of holy people. We venerate the Forerunner (whom Christ called the greatest man ever born), and even his decapitated head in  icons such as this one.

The solemn commemoration of the Forerunner's Beheading on August 29 is a strict fasting day for Orthodox Christians, in remembrance of this cruel event.