Sermon on the Day of the Beheading of John the Baptist
by Protopriest Viktor Ilienko (+1989)
“The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart.” This sad truth was expressed by Prophet Isaiah (57:1). These words appear in our hearts on the day of the great prophet, John the Baptist. He was beheaded on the birthday of King Herod; by the desire of his adulterous wife, the greatest man ever born of woman was executed and his head brought to the middle of the feast. And no one paid any mind! The party did not come to an end from this crime, the guests were not insulted by their host for having executed a righteous man, whom the king himself listened to eagerly.
After some time after the death of the Baptist, a worse crime was committed: not to please a dancing girl who seduced the King, but to please a mob which the Roman proconsul hated and despised, he handed over the innocent Christ to crucifixion. And again, no one paid any mind! We say “no one,” because the small group of Apostles stunned by the crucifixion of their Teacher was but a drop in the ocean among the enemies of Christ.
These two examples: Christ and His Forerunner, seem to say to us that there is evil in this life, lies and crimes that go unpunished, unnoticed or even approved by society. Moreover, the two examples were committed by a king and a proconsul, that is, by people whose positions demand that they tend to fairness and justice. But if injustice ascended the king’s throne and the proconsul’s bench, if those who must judge fairly instead commit horrible crimes, then where are we to seek justice? The righteous are frustrated and those wishing to serve God are bewildered.
“And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered,” said the Prophet Malachi (3:15). Are then not our efforts to serve God in vain, and what is the benefit of serving Him?
As we see, it is not only in our times that such thoughts and frustrations velt by those who believe in God. When mankind knew nothing yet about Christ the Savior, the suffering of the righteous and the victory of the wicked brought despondency to the souls of good people. However, just as today, the Lord felt sympathy for those who love Him in their days of sorrow. Through the words of the prophets, He promised the coming Savior and of the future justice. In Malachi we also read “Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name.
“And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.
“Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not. For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
“But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.
“And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts.
Finally, we read in Isaiah: “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
”I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
“I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together:
“That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it” (41_17-20).
For us Russian refugees, drinking of the cup of sorrow and humiliation, trying not to fall into despair, these words of the prophets should bring special consolation. If the Lord can open rivers in high places, make the deserts pools of water, then for us who are scattered throughout the world, the Lord can, as He did with the dry bones in Ezekiel, gather us together and resurrect us in new life.
But so that we do not despair, do not fall in spirit, but on the contrary, strengthen in hope for the justice of God and His mercy towards us, the Lord gave us feast days like today: both sorrowful and joyous: sorrowful because a righteous man was beheaded, joyous because they instill in us firmly the idea that no matter how many sorrows we must endure on earth, and how sad is the death of a good man, there is honor, and his praises shall be sung for ever and ever. Amen.
Tarascon-sur-Ariege, France, 1938