The Beheading of St John the Baptist


Saints are nearly always commemorated on the date of their death, or sometimes on the date of the translation of their relics, or on the date of the dedication of a church under their protection. In any case it is their death – their ‘heavenly birthday’, the day when they finished their course on earth and received the crown of glory – that is celebrated. However, though the Nativity of St John the Baptist appears in the Prayer Book Kalendar, that feast properly belongs to the cycle of the Nativity of Our Lord – while the commemoration of his death, the Beheading or Decollation of St John the Baptist,* is absent from the bcp1979 Kalendar.

Though the Kalendar of the first Prayer Book (1549) was swept of nearly all saints’ days, the medieval Kalendar was essentially carried over in the Primer (a book for private prayer) issued under authority in Edward VI’s reign: thus the Beheading appears in the 1553 Primer as it had in Henry VIII’s Primer of 1545. It was removed in the 1559 Primer, whose Kalendar looks much more like that of the bcp1549, but it was returned to the public Kalendar of the Church of England in 1561, when under Elizabeth many saints’ days that had been eliminated in 1549 were added – though many of them, including this one, still without proper texts. This feast, inexplicably, has never appeared in an American Prayer Book or supplement – not even in the new and rather grossly distended Holy Women, Holy Men.

The Synoptic Gospels tell us that St John the Baptist died as he had lived, uncompromisingly pointing out vice and preaching repentance. The Roman Introit anthem reads

I spoke of thy testimonies before kings, and was not put to shame:
and I meditated on thy commandments, which I have loved exceedingly.

and the Lesson is taken from the first chapter of the Book of Jeremiah, recounting that prophet’s call to speak fearlessly to the rulers and people. The other Proper chants, also used for various feasts of martyrs and confessors, speak of the rewards of the righteous: they shall rejoice, shall gain their heart’s desire, shall receive a crown.

Tradition recounts that St John continued his ministry even after death; an Orthodox hymn for the feast tells that the ‘Forerunner’ (as he is generally called in the East) of Christ during his earthly life was also his Forerunner in death, preaching to the spirits in Hades before Our Lord did the same:

The memory of the righteous is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner. You were shown in truth to be the most honorable of the prophets, for you were deemed worthy to baptize in the streams of the Jordan Him whom they foretold. Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy, you proclaimed to those in Hades God who appeared in the flesh, who takes away the sin of the world, and grants us great mercy.

The Gospels make the point that in this life as well, St John’s ministry was fulfilled in that of Christ and his disciples, who healed the sick and performed other deeds of power, prompting Herod and others to wonder whether Our Lord was in fact St John reincarnate. And the Epistle appointed for this feast in both the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada, Hb 11.32ff, makes the link between deeds and rewards, faith and its fulfillment: it tells of the ‘great cloud of witnesses’, the Old Testament heroes and prophets (of whom St John the Baptist is considered the last and greatest) who wrought mighty deeds but also suffered greatly, all by and for faith – and whose faith is made perfect in Jesus.

Although bcp 1979 does not provide for the celebration of this feast, but the Collect for the Nativity of St John the Baptist refers to his suffering as well and is worth repeating here:

Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth...

The Church of England offers this Collect for the feast (that of the Anglican Church of Canada is similar):

Almighty God, who called your servant John the Baptist to be the forerunner of your Son in birth and death: strengthen us by your grace that, as he suffered for the truth, so we may boldly resist corruption and vice and receive with him the unfading crown of glory; through Jesus Christ your Son...

*  According to the Roman Martyrology the date of the feast, 29 August, commemorates ‘the second finding of his most venerable head’. There is a long and tortuous history of various burials, findings, and translations of the relics of St John the Baptist stretching from Jordan and Syria to England.