Festival of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist
The Lord be with you
Today is set aside to remember the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. In contrast to the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (observed on June 27), this festival commemorates his beheading by the tetrarch Herod Antipas (Mark 6:14-29). From the perspective of the world, it was an ignominious end to John the Baptist’s life. Yet it was in fact a noble participation in the cross of Christ, which was John’s greatest glory of all. Christ Himself said that there had arisen none greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11). He was the last of the Old Testament prophets and also the herald of the New Testament. As the forerunner of Christ, John fulfilled the prophecy that the great prophet Elijah would return before the great and terrible Day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5; Matthew 17:10-13). By his preaching and Baptism of repentance, John turned “the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). And in the footsteps of the prophets who had gone before him—in anticipation of the Christ whose way he prepared—this servant of the Lord manifested the cross by the witness of his death.
As forerunner of our Lord’s birth, preaching, and death, the blessed John showed in his struggle a goodness worthy of the sight of heaven. The ancient writer of the book of Wisdom described men like John: Though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality [Wis. 3:4 RSV]. We rightly commemorate the day of his birth [into heaven] with festive joy, for he made it sacred for us through his own suffering and adorned it with the crimson splendor of his own blood. Rightly do we with joyful hearts revere his memory, for he stamped with the seal of martyrdom the witness he gave on behalf of the Lord.
The following is taken from a sermon of Bede the Venerable (commemorated on May 25).
Without doubt blessed John endured imprisonment and chains and laid down his life as a witness to our Redeemer, whose forerunner he was. His persecutor did not order him to deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Christ himself said, “I am the truth”; in shedding his blood for the truth, John surely died for Christ.
By his birth, preaching, and baptizing, he bore witness to the coming birth, preaching, and baptism of Christ, and by his own suffering he showed that Christ would also suffer.
Such was the quality and strength of the one who accepted the end of this present life by shedding his blood after the long imprisonment. He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by the ungodly; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life and deserved to be called a bright and shining lamp by the Light itself, which is Christ. John was baptized in his own blood, he who had been given the privilege of baptizing the Redeemer of the world, of hearing the voice of the Father above him, and of seeing the grace of the Holy Spirit descending upon him. But to endure temporal agonies for the sake of the truth was not a heavy burden for such as John; rather it was easily borne and even desirable, for he knew eternal joy would be his reward.
Since death was ever near at hand through the inescapable necessity of nature, such people considered it a blessing to embrace death and thus gain the reward of eternal life by acknowledging Christ’s name. Hence the apostle Paul rightly says, “He graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for him as well” [Phil. 1:29]. He tells us why it is a gift of Christ that his chosen ones should suffer for him, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is about to be revealed in us.” [Rom. 8:18]
Prayer: Almighty God, You gave Your servant John the Baptist to be the forerunner of Your Son, Jesus Christ, in both his preaching of repentance and his innocent death. Grant that we, who have died and risen with Christ in Holy Baptism, may daily repent of our sins, patiently suffer for the sake of the truth, and fearlessly bear witness to His victory over death; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Other appropriate prayers:
• For all who are wrongfully accused
• For courage to obey God’s commands in the face of great opposition, to speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the sake of truth
• For all who are maintaining the Christian faith under intolerant governments
• For the holy martyrs of today
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert