Homily by St. Peter Chrysologus on the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Prophet, and Forerunner
A good shepherd spends sleepless nights and anxious days so that no crafty thief nor cunning and ferocious wolves may post any danger or any harm to his dear flock. “The Good Shepherd,” as the Lord said, “lays down his life for his sheep.” (John 10:11) But also good sheep listen with their ears attuned to the voice of their shepherd, they always follow their shepherd’s bidding, and they carry out the will of their shepherd in its entirety. They climb hills, they make their way to steer terrain, they often change locations, and thus they enter quiet places that are suitable for grazing, watered by streams, shady, ample, and secluded, they find their surroundings pleasant, and they thoroughly enjoy how delightful t all is.
And you, little children, the plentiful portion of the Lord’s flock, now clothed in fleece that is snow-white and divine, pregnant with twins as offspring from heaven, if upon hearing our voice you have often reached beneficial places and beneficial pasture, if from the stream of our words you have soothed the heat of your mind and the intensity of your thirst, and if you have taken shelter in our teaching and have reclined in some comfort, then attend to what we ordain, heed what we say, show your approval for what we have done, and realize that the purpose of our preaching is not to conform to your will, but to conform to the position we occupy.
Whether we speak from this step, or whether when the season calls for it we preach from the Bishop’s Chair, like good sheep and a dear flock, beloved children, make haste to come together without disdain, diligently, and full speed ahead in faith, May the fact that you will now be moving from upfront and into the tightly packed space farther way neither make you lazy and inattentive nor cause you to murmur, because a sheep does not arrive at the sheepfold if it wanders around at its own pleasure, nor will a disciple be able to obtain knowledge if he strives to be taught according to his own will. A sick person likewise will never be able to recover his health if he is given treatment that conforms to his own wishes. But since we are preaching today against a raging wolf, with the shepherd’s staff in hand let us make our way over to the Gospel reading.
“King Herod,” it says, “heard about him—for Jesus’ Name had spread about—and was saying that John the Baptist had risen from the dead, and it is for that reason that such powers were at work in him.” (Mk. 6:14) The fool holds pious beliefs about someone who was dead after having cruelly persecuted him while he was alive. “John has risen.” And nevertheless, in his ignorance, he admits that in Christ and for Christ the one whom he had killed rises up. Herod, what did your sword accomplish? What did you gain from your cruelty? What was the result of your impiety if, as you yourself say, the one who was thought to be destroyed by your fury returned to exercise his powers and rose up to accomplish divine works?
“John has risen,” just as your yourself acknowledge: here it was not the person but the infirmity that perished; here it was not John, but rather death that was overcome by such a death; the punishment is mocked, the executioner is considered a laughingstock, the very sentence of the wretched judge is eluded, because it did not strike down the one who was killed, but raised him to a higher state.
“John has risen from the dead, and it is for that reason that such powers are at work in him.” Even though he was an enemy of the Law, nevertheless, he had learned by means of the Law that the resurrection of the dead had been promised; and if he knew that John would rise, why then in his insanity did he kill him? If he understood that by such a death John would be elevated to the pinnacle of the fullness of divine power and to the fullness of all that epitomizes majesty, why did he make himself the author of such a brutal death?
Impiety always suffers from a fever; cruelty is always possessed by madness. Fury does not know that it is depriving itself of clemency; for indeed he rages against himself as often as he aims for another; he punishes himself by striking down the innocent; he is completely destroying himself when he is cruel to a just person. See how John, as you yourself say, is now alive in Christ. He who has come to cure all with heavenly grace returns to punish you.
“Others, however, were saying: ‘He is Elias, or one of the prophets.’ When Herod heard this he said: ‘He is John, whom I beheaded; he has risen from the dead.’ ” (vv. 15-16) Certainly with an ill-disposed but a true perception he himself testifies to his crime, he confesses his wickedness, he accuses himself of the evil he committed. “He is John, whom I behead.” (v. 16) He spoke the truth. For just as those who belong to Christ rise in Him, so too does Christ Himself suffer int hose who belong to Him. And just as honor is given to the head extends to the members, so too does the pain of the members result in hurting and injuring the head.
“John, whom I beheaded”: this wise king, exceptional magistrate, judge of moral, guardian of discipline, avenger of the innocent, punisher of crimes, tells of having beheaded John, but keeps silent about why he beheaded him, in order that the shamefulness of such a wicked deed would not disgrace his royal power. But the Evangelist records this so that the murderer’s dishonor may redound to the glory of the one who was murdered.
“Herod,” he says, “held, bound, and incarcerated John, because John kept telling Herod: ‘It is not right for you to live with the wife of your brother while he is alive’ ” (vv.17-18). For Herodias, who was eager to be the wife of two brothers because of her love for wickedness, so as to do violence to affection by means of affection, and so that she be joined as Herodias to Herod, so as not to be any different even in name, since they were entirely alike in wickedness, behavior, and life; so that they, whom the shamefulness of their crimes had united, would be united by appellation—so then, this “Herodias was plotting against John.” (v.19)
Herod did not quell the intention of the adulteress; nevertheless, he did delay the wickedness of the adulteress. In order that there would be no one to accuse her, she aimed at putting her accuser to death: Herod, in order to placate that incestuous woman, himself the captive, only went so far as to hold, bind, and lock up this righteous man, because in his guilt it could not have been easy for him to pronounce judgment against him in his innocence.
“An opportune time had presented itself,” it says, “when Herod held a banquet on his birthday for the nobles, the tribunes, and the leading men of Galilee. And after the daughter of this very Herodias had entered, performed a dance, and pleased the king together with the others at table, the king said to the girl: ‘Ask me for whatever you want, and I will give it you.’ And he sword to her: ‘Whatever you ask, I will give you, even half my kingdom.” (vv. 21-23) What an ungrateful and impolite king, since for such great virtue, for so glorious a labor, for so memorable a deed, he offered not his entire kingdom, but only half! And why did he keep for himself even a portion? Indeed, after so glorious a household, after so holy a family, after such an example of chastity, he should not even have existed, been seen, or lived!!
And so, that daughter of sin, and not of nature, immediately ran off not so much to her mother as to the very cesspool of her wickedness, so that she who had gone all soft and loose would hurry back savage and cruel, and—to express it in theatrical language—so that she who had played a very indecent comic role would sing of an unspeakable tragedy.
And so “she said to her mother: ‘For what shall I ask?’ And she replied: ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ When she returned she said to the king: ‘I ask that right away the head of John the Baptist be given to me on a dish.’ And the king was deeply saddened,” it says, “but did not want to disappoint her on account of the dinner guests also present. And he sent an executioner out and ordered that John’s head be brought back, and he gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.” (vv. 24-28)
This is the kind of judgment that a mind makes when it is overcome with intoxication, when it become dissolute with wine, and completely submerged in a shipwreck of drunkenness, as it were. “Give me the head of John.” The offspring of the serpent seeks the head of the human being, to whom it knew that is own head had been surrendered by what had been decreed from the beginning when God said: “He will lie in wait for your head, and you will lie in wait for his heel.” (gen. 3:15)
The lengthy reading has drawn our attention for a long while, and the immensely profound nature of this passage has advanced us deeply enough. For today let us postpone what follows, lest, if my sermon hastens to reach the end, it may omit items which require a lengthy exposition. In concluding our remarks, we bring to your attention that the serpent ran in vain, for our John here destroyed all the brood of the ancient serpent, and by shedding his own blood, he who was murdered killed them all.