At his coronation in 1547, almost a century after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, the 16-year-old Grand Prince of Moscow proclaimed himself “Tsar (Caesar) of All the Russians.” In doing so, he sent a message to the surrounding kingdoms—and to his own nobility—that he was inheritor of the vacant Roman/Byzantine imperium, the new leader of the civilized world and defender of the Christian faith, and therefore he ruled by divine prerogative. To demonstrate that power in visible and lasting ways, his reign became a constant program of political and military campaigns and wonders of art and architecture, combined with a penchant for cruelty and antagonistic bullying that have enshrined for him a legacy as one of the first modern tyrants. One such campaign involved his relocating outside Moscow and submitting a letter of resignation to his council during a time of political defections; when the council, unable to maintain order, asked him to return to power, he offered to do so on the condition that he could punish treasonous behavior with absolute authority. His condition was satisfied, and he returned to power. Less than ten years later, he had the plague-ridden city of Novgorod burned to the ground on a mere suspicion.
Many such atrocious and paranoid face-saving acts came to solidify the reputation of the man who is known to history as Ivan the Terrible. How fitting, then, that one of his first acts as tsar was the building of a great church in Dyakovo, a towering fort-like structure with eight sides and four small side chapels built in the same style. To this day, the Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist stands as a monument to Ivan’s rise to power.
Today is the Memorial of the Passion of John the Baptist. Aside from the members of the Holy Family, the Forerunner of the Messiah is the only saint whom the Church commemorates more than once in the Roman Calendar. On June 24 we solemnly celebrate his birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and today we remember his death at the hands of Herod. This memorial has been known more specifically as the Beheading (decollatio) or Decapitation of the Baptist, and more generally as the Martyrdom of the Baptist. Today it is known as the Passion of the Baptist, which I think is more appropriate for two reasons: first, it connects him in a closer way with the Passion of the Lord and Messiah Whose coming he foretold and Whose way he prepared; and second, it serves as reminder to us that how he died is not nearly as important as why he died.
So why did he die? Today’s Gospel reading from Mark tells us that at a dinner party the daughter of Herod’s wife Herodias had performed a dance to the delight of Herod and his guests. So delighted was the tetrarch that he made an oath to the girl that he would give her anything she asked. And after consultation with her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Now Herod already had the Baptist in prison, because he had spoken out publicly against Herod’s marriage to Herodias (his own brother’s wife). Herod knew the Baptist was a holy man and even enjoyed listening to him talk, but was afraid of him on account of the anger of his wife, and so (in what I presume was an effective compromise) he threw him in prison. When Herodias’ daughter asked for the Baptist’s head, however, Herod was very disturbed and afraid. He did not want to do this thing, and knew it would be a very wrong thing to do, but he did it anyway “because of his oaths and the guests.”
Why did the king kill the holy man? To save face in front of people. Herod made a rash promise, in front of his court, to the daughter of his angry and vengeful wife. So he decided to save face and do what he knew was wrong.
Such was the ignoble death of John the Baptist, the greatest man born of woman. And yet it is a story and a lesson so typical of the life of John the Baptist, the very least in the kingdom of God. He himself had cultivated a reputation, but unlike so many others’ it was oriented towards a moment when he could allow that reputation to dwindle. He told all who would listen—and many did—that someone was going to come after him who was greater. And when that Someone came, the focus of his ministry changed and grew less important as he allowed the One he was waiting for to take over. He wasn’t interested in saving face, but in showing the world the Face of God. And in doing so, his life became a model for us who remember his death and solemnize his birth. His famous remark from John’s Gospel becomes the motto for Christian living: “He must increase; I must decrease.”
In much the same way as the Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist endures as a witness to one man’s pursuit of reputation, the actual beheading of John the Baptist endures as a witness to one man’s maintenance of it. And they both have to thank for it a man whose memory endures as a witness to the sacrifice of it. So as we go through the Christian experience and face our various trials and sufferings—our “passions,” if you will—let us remember the patient and willing Passion of the Baptist, and ask ourselves constantly if we’re doing the right thing or just losing our Head to save our faces.