29 August: Beheading of St. John the Baptist – diminishing returns

Today is the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist.

I consider this (also) my name day, and in so many ways it is more appropriate for me than the Nativity of John in June.

Here is the Roman Martyrology entry for ” the greatest man born of woman”, as the Lord called him:

Memoria passionis sancti Ioannis Baptistae, quem Herodes Antipas rex in arce Macherontis in carcere tenuit et in anniversario suo, filia Herodiadis rogante, decollari praecepit; ideo, Praecursor Domini, sicut lucerna ardens et lucens, tam in morte quam in vita testimonium perhibuit veritati.

The memorial of the suffering and death of St. John the Baptist, whom King Herod Antipas held in the prison in the citadel of Macheron and, on his birthday, since the daughter of Herodias was making the request, ordered to be beheaded; thus, the Precursor of the Lord, like a bright shining lantern, gave witness to the truth in death as much as he did in life.

There is a tradition that John was forgiven the guilt of Original Sin before He was born, at the sound of Mary’s voice when she came to visit Elizabeth and John lept in her womb.

St. Augustine spoke often of St. John the Baptist, “the voice” of Christ’s “Word”.

Here is a piece of s. 380, preached in a year we can’t quite figure out. As a matter of fact, it might not be an actual sermon, but something assembled from other pieces. Still, it is Augustinian:

8. So let us recognize these two things in the very differences of [Christ’s and John’s] deaths. We read that John suffered martyrdom for the truth; was it for Christ? It wasn’t for Christ if Christ isn’t Truth. It certainly wasn’t for His Name, and yet it was for Truth itself. I mean the reason John was beheaded, after all, was not that he had confessed Christ. But he was urging self-control, he was urging justice; he was saying, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mk 6:18). The law, you see, which had commanded this, had also commanded about those who died without children, that brothers should take the wives of their brothers, and raise up seed for their brothers. Where this reason was lacking, the only motive was lust. It was this lust that John was rebuking, a chaste man rebuking an incestuous one; because this too is what he represented: “It is necessary for him to grow, but for me to diminish” (Jn 3:30).

The commandment had already been given that if anyone died without seed, his closet relation should take his wife and raise up seed for his brother. After all, why had God commanded this if not to signify in this way that the brother’s seed was to be raised up to the brother’s name? The commandment, you see, was that the child to be born would have the name of the deceased. Christ was deceased, the apostles took His spouse, the Church. Those whom they begot of her they did not name Paulians or Petrians, but Christians.

So let both their deaths also speak of these two things: “It is necessary for him to grow, but for me to diminish.” The one grew on the Cross, the other was diminished by the sword. Their deaths have spoken of this mystery, let the days do so too. Christ is born, and the days start increasing; John is born, and the days start diminishing. So let man’s honor diminish, God’s honor increase, so that the honor of man may be found in the honor of God.

Augustine makes the connection between the change of seasons and the births of John the Precursor and Christ the Messiah. Very nice.

In nature, in the northern hemisphere, the days are now quite obviously getting shorter, a cycle reflected in our feasts.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Rachel K says:

    A very Happy Name Day to you Fr Z. My Godson, also John, has his birthday today. When his father texted the news of his birth the text read “His name is John” !

  2. Bea says:

    Feliz dia de tu Santo, Padre Z.
    Happy name day, Fr. Z.

    Estas son las mañanitas
    que cantaba el Rey David
    En el dia de tu santo te las cantamos así ;
    Despierta, mi bien, despierta
    Mira que ya amaneció
    Ya los pajarillos cantan
    La luna ya se metió

  3. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Happy Name Day!

    And thank you for the St. Augustine!

    Can you – or can anyone – recommend anything (online) to read about the imagery used in the Martyology: “Praecursor Domini, sicut lucerna ardens et lucens” (“Precursor of the Lord, like a bright shining lantern”)?

    It lies, in a way, behind all of Tolkien’s legendarium, in his interest in the Old English verse paraphrase and elaboration of the Advent antiphon, ‘O Oriens’, which includes the word – apparently name – ‘earendel’ which in one of the Old English Blickling Homilies, in the form ‘eorendel’, is applied to St. John the Baptist. (Recall his discussion in Letter 297: the edition of the Homilies he cites there – Old English text with modern English facing translation – is scanned in the Internet Archive.)

    St. Bonaventure also uses it, in his own way, in his Life of St. Francis.

  4. Widukind says:

    Congratulations on your feastday.
    A bit of mirth for you –
    What position did the servant hold who brought the platter
    with the head of John before Herod et al.?
    He was the “Head” Waiter !!!

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