No figure is as mysterious in Holy Writ as Saint John the Baptist, the Precursor sent to announce the coming of Christ, wrapped in the power and force of Elijah the prophet. In many ways the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, like them preaching tirelessly and fearlessly a message of repentance, and, like most of them, announcing that a Messiah was coming to bring salvation from God.
Today is the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist. It is a very old feast, as old, perhaps, as the other feast day we have for the birth of the Baptist.
The calls of the Baptist for repentance and his announcement that the long expected Messiah had arrived, had a shattering impact on his audiences, as they crowded around him to receive baptism. The fire of his faith, and his complete lack of fear, is a standing rebuke to Christians who have allowed their faith to grow cold, and who fear the World, the Flesh and the Devil more than they love the God who loves each of us as though there were no other Men except us.
Here is the description by the Jewish historian Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, of the circumstances that gave rise to the imprisonment of John:
About this time Aretas, the king of Petra, and Herod the Tetrarch had a quarrel on account of the following. Herod the tetrarch had married the daughter of Aretas and had lived with her a great while; but once when he was on his way to Rome he lodged with his half-brother, also named Herod but who had a different mother, the high priest Simon’s daughter. There he fell in love with Herodias, this latter Herod’s wife, who was the daughter of their brother Aristobulus and the sister of Agrippa the Great. Continue Reading
Today is the feast of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist, an event which is mentioned in a source other than the Gospels. Here is the Jewish historian Josephus who wrote circa 93-94 AD regarding the death of the Baptist in his Jewish Antiquities:
About this time Aretas, the king of Petra, and Herod the Tetrarch had a quarrel on account of the following. Herod the tetrarch had married the daughter of Aretas and had lived with her a great while; but once when he was on his way to Rome he lodged with his half-brother, also named Herod but who had a different mother, the high priest Simon’s daughter. There he fell in love with Herodias, this latter Herod’s wife, who was the daughter of their brother Aristobulus and the sister of Agrippa the Great. This man ventured to talk to her about a marriage between them; she accepted, and an agreement was made for her to come to him as soon as he should return from Rome, one condition of this marriage being that he should divorce Aretas’s daughter. So when he had made this agreement, he sailed to Rome; but when he had finished there and returned again, his wife, having discovered the agreement he had made with Herodias, and before he knew that she knew of the plan, asked him to send her to Machaerus, a place on the border between the territories of Aretas and Herod, without informing him of any of her intentions. Accordingly Herod sent her there, thinking his wife had not perceived anything. But she had sent messages a good while before to Machaerus, which had been under the control of her father, and so all things necessary for her escape were made ready for her by the general of Aretas’s army. By that means she soon came into Arabia, under the conduct of the several generals, who carried her from one to another successively; and soon she came to her father and told him of Herod’s intentions. Aretas made this the start of his enmity toward Herod. He also had a quarrel with him about their boundaries in the area of Gabalis. So they raised armies on both sides and prepared for war, sending their generals to fight instead of themselves. And when they had joined battle, all Herod’s army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives who, though they were of the tetrarchy of Philip and joined the army, betrayed him. So Herod wrote about these affairs to Emperor Tiberius, who was very angry at the attempt made by Aretas and wrote to Vitellius to make war upon him and either to take him alive, and bring him in chains, or to kill him, and send him his head. This was the command that Tiberius gave to the governor of Syria.
August 29 is the feast day of the beheading of John the Baptist, the herald of Christ. Charlton Heston, in the video clip above, gave a powerful portrayal of the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told, capturing the raw courage and energy that animated John the Baptist as a result of the blazing faith he had in God. Like Elijah, John came out of the wilderness to fearlessly proclaim the word of God, but what Elijah and the other prophets could only glimpse darkly, the coming of the Messiah, John saw with his own eyes. The last and greatest of the prophets, John fulfilled the role of Elijah as proclaimed by the prophet Malachi:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. Continue Reading