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The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

August 29, 2009 1 comment

The Beheading of the Holy Glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John


“Having suffered for the truth, thou hast gone rejoicing to declare to those in hell the good tidings of God having appeared in the flesh” (Troparion of the Feast, Aug. 29).

The whole life of St. John the Forerunner, from its first days, was entirely dedicated to the One Who came after him. In the days of infant massacres in Bethlehem, he was also sought by Herod, and his mother Elizabeth fled with him into the desert, where she died on the fortieth day. About the same time, his father Zacharias was killed by the servants of Herod, in the Temple. The desert raised John, and he remained there in silence, for thirty years, until the word of God came unto him, commanding him to preach repentance and call on men to prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 3:2).

About half a year after the beginning of his ministry, having prepared the Jews to expect the speedy coming of the Messiah, and surrounding himself with disciples, most of whom became the first disciples of Christ, John the Baptist, baptized Christ. The mystery of the Holy Trinity was then revealed to him. Having informed those with him, that the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world was present, John gradually faded into the shadows and everyone began follow the new Teacher.

However, John rather than grieving over this, rejoiced. When his especially devoted disciples asked him about his lack of concern over his decreasing fame, he replied with words that clearly expressed his personality. “I am not the Christ, but I am sent before Him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: therefore this my joy is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28-50).

Soon after this, his word thundered forth, accusing Herod, so he was cast into a prison, where his earthly life ended. He was beheaded during Herod’s banquet.

“ At that time, King Herod heard that Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.

And others said, For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; because he had married her. For John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” And she went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.”

And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” ( Mark 6:14-30 )

The beheading of St. John the Baptist, which cut off his earthly life, at the same time, started his new and glorious ministry as Forerunner.

The soul of St. John the Baptist, departing his ascetic body, went to hell, the place where the souls of all who died before the Savior’s death on the Cross. The souls of everyone beginning from Adam were here.

However, the holy and righteous soul of St. John the Baptist did not go there in order to experience a dark condition of alienation and distance from God. The “friend of the Bridegroom,” who had baptized Him, suffered for his righteousness, bore the hope of the coming Kingdom of God, preached to all preparing the way for Him, was inseparably bound to Him through his devotion, testifying everywhere for Christ, as His messenger, sent before Him..

Having descended to hell, John continued the ministry that he had performed on earth—the preaching about the Kingdom of God drawing near. The souls of the righteous ones, from the Old Testament were languishing in hell, awaiting the fulfillment of the coming of the One Who would conquer the serpent, as had been told to Adam by God. The prophets, who had seen beforehand in spirit, the coming of the Messiah awaited the fulfillment of the revelations that had been made to them. These souls, deprived of the light of God’s glory, tormented with waiting for the fulfillment of their hope, John came, having descended to hell, bringing the Joyful tidings that soon the kingdom of hell would be destroyed. Those who awaited the Redeemer would soon behold Him and be liberated by Him. John testified that the Son of God had already come to earth and that after baptizing Him, he had witnessed the Holy Spirit descending and remaining on Him (John 1:33-34).

The preaching of John concerning the coming of the Messiah was addressed not only to the souls of the righteous, but to all who were in hell. He appeared in hell to prepare the way of the Lord, just as he had prepared it on earth. John the Baptist’s descent to hell and his preaching of the Gospel was the proclamation of joy to those who were languishing there.

The souls of all the dead, save for the most inveterate sinners, heeded the preaching of the Baptist. Therefore, when Christ descended to hell after His death on the Cross, He was greeted not only by the Old Testament righteous ones, but also by the souls of those who once were disobedient and opposed the long suffering of God in the days of Noah and during the rest of the time that sin reigned among men (1 Peter 3:20).

Hell was destroyed by the Christ’s soul descent into it; the dark confinement shone with light; the souls of the reposed were led into the Kingdom of Heaven. The entryway to this ruin of hell was the descent of the Baptist. Having fulfilled his ministry as Forerunner on earth, he appeared as the Forerunner of Christ, in hell. His beheading is not only the culmination of his earthly exploit, but also the beginning of a new and glorious ministry.

Among them, that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28), Christ said of him. This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before Thy face, which shall prepare Thy way before Thee (Luke 7:27).

These words of the Lord Himself, testify of the spiritual greatness of John and his high purpose in the work of the salvation of the human race. He appeared as the servant and preacher of God as no other single man in the world, having begun to preach and praise Christ before his birth, and finishing it even after his death, ascending with Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven after the destruction of hell. As the greatest of the righteous, a worthy place was prepared for him in the Kingdom of his Friend, where he remains now, awaiting its revelation in all glory and the triumphant feast of the Lamb of God in the Second Coming, when He will gather His wheat into the garner, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3.12; Luke 3.17).

His beheading was his final exploit on earth, and the last step for the receiving of the greatest reward in the Kingdom of Heaven; while for all those in hell it was the rising of the morning star, before the appearance of the Son of Righteousness.

Just as the nativity of St. John the Forerunner and Baptist is the beginning of the Gospel for the living, so is his beheading the beginning of the Gospel for the dead. “The glorious beheading of the Forerunner is part of a certain Divine dispensation, for he preached to those in hell the coming of the Savior” (Kontakion of the Feast).

“Be glad, Baptist, and let thy spirit dance: for thou dost accuse the godless Herod, and dost preach to those in hell, saying: Our salvation hath drawn near” (Canticle 4 of the Canon).


“He who came before Thy Birth and Thy Divine Passion is, through a sword, in the nethermost parts of the earth. John, the prophet and messenger of Thy descent there, cries as the voice of the Word: Do ye dead, as Giver of life, do ye blind, as Giver of light, do ye prisoners, as Deliverer, exalt Christ above all forever” (Canticle 8 of the Canon).

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On Spiritual Study

August 17, 2009 Leave a comment


by Elder Paisios the Athonite (+1994)

— Geronda, what books should be read by those who are beginning their spiritual search?

— First, they should read the New Testament to learn the meaning of Christ, to be shaken up a little; later they can read the Old Testament. Do you know how hard it is when they have read nothing and yet they come to ask for help? It is like an elementary school child going to a university professor and saying, “Help me.” What can the professor tell him? “One plus one equals two”? Others, again, are not spiritually restless; they come and say, “Father, I have no problems and I am just fine; I only dropped by to see you.” Man can never say that he has no problems, no concerns; he will have something. The struggle for the spiritual life never ends. Or some people come and tell me, “Tell us spiritual things.” It is as if they went to the grocery store and said, “Give us some groceries.” The grocer is at a loss and needs to know what they need. They need to say, “I want so much sugar, so much rice, and so on, but they only say, ‘Give us groceries.’ “It is like going to the pharmacy and saying, “Give us medicines,” without first saying what their illness is, or whether or not they went to the doctor, and what he advised them to do. Go figure! You see, whoever is seriously concerned over his spiritual condition knows, more or less, what he is lacking, and once he seeks it, he benefits.

As a novice, when I read something I liked, I wrote it down so as not to forget it, and I would try to apply it to my life. I didn’t readjust to pass my time pleasantly. I had a spiritual restlessness and, when I could not understand something, I would ask for an explanation. I read relatively little, but I checked myself a great deal on what I read. “What point am I at? What must I do?” I would sit myself down and go through such a self-examination. I did not allow what I read to pass me by untaxed.

Today with so much reading people end up like tape recorders, filling up their cassettes with superfluous matters. According to Abba Isaac, however, Wisdom not based on righteous activity is a deposit of disgrace. [6] You see, many who are interested in sports read sports magazines and newspapers while they are sitting. They may be like the fatted calf, but they still marvel at the athletes. “Oh he is marvellous! He is great! Bravo!” But they don’t work up any sweat, and they don’t lose any pounds. They read and read about athletic events, and then they go and lie down; they gain nothing. They are satisfied with the pleasure of reading. Some worldly people read newspapers, others romantic literature or an adventure novel, still others watch a football game at the stadium and pass their time. The same thing is done by some people who read spiritual books. They may spend the whole night reading spiritual books with great intensity and be content. They take a spiritual book, sit comfortably, and begin reading. “Oh, I profited from that,” they say. It would be better to say, “I enjoyed myself, I spent my time pleasantly.” But this is not profit.

We profit when we understand what we read, when we censure ourselves and discipline ourselves by applying it: “What does this mean? Where do I stand in relation to this spiritual truth? What must I do now?” After all, the more we learn, the more responsibility we have to live up to what we have learned. I am not saying that we should not read so that we can plead ignorance and therefore be free of responsibility, for this is a cunning deception; I am saying that we should not read merely to pass our time pleasantly. The bad thing is that if someone reads a lot and has a strong memory, he may remember many things and may even talk a lot about what he has read, and thus deceive himself into thinking that he also personally observes the many things he reads. So he has created an illusion toward himself and others. So don’t be comforted by the thought that you read a lot. Instead, turn your attention to applying what you have read. Much reading alone will only educate you encyclopaedically. Isn’t that what they call it?

Yes, Geronda.

— The goal, however, is to be transformed in a God-centred manner. I am not aiming to be a university professor where I would need to know many things. But if I ever need something from this worldly knowledge, I can easily learn it once I have acquired the God-centred knowledge. Do you see what I mean?

— When one has a distraction, is it beneficial to concentrate through study?

— Yes, one should read a little, something very demanding, in order to warm the soul. This keeps distractions and concerns under the lid, and the mind is transposed into a divine realm. Otherwise, the mind is diverted by whatever task is preoccupying it.

— Geronda, when someone is tired or upset, he usually wants to read something light and easy, a short story or a novel, perhaps, or something like that.

— Is there no spiritual book that is appropriate for such times? The purpose is not to forget one’s worry, but to be redeemed. Such light reading does not redeem. Novels, newspapers and television have no value in developing a spiritual life. Quite often even some religious periodicals are damaging to Christians, because they stir a foolish zealousness that leads to confusion. Take care. Do not read unnecessary things during your free time. Some reading matter is completely hollow, like a water-pumpkin; it is like looking in a haystack to find a kernel of wheat. Some people say, “Yes, but they relax me.” But how can they be relaxing, my good man, if they make you dizzy and cause your eyes to ache? It is better to rest by sleeping. You can learn much about a person’s spiritual state from what he reads. One who is very worldly will probably be reading indecent magazines. One who is less worldly will read less indecent magazines and newspapers. One who is religious will read religious periodicals, or contemporary religious books or patristic texts, and so on.

— Geronda, which spiritual books are the most helpful?

— The various patristic texts, which thank God are available by the thousands today, are very helpful. One can find whatever one needs and desires in these books. They are authentic spiritual nourishment and a sure guide on the spiritual path. However, in order to be of benefit to us, they have to be read with humility and prayer. Patristic texts reveal the inner spiritual condition of the soul, much as axial tomography reveals the inner structures of the body. Each sentence of the patristic texts contains a multitude of meanings, and each person can interpret them according to their own spiritual state of being. It is better to read the ancient text rather than a translation, because the translator interprets the original verse according to his own spirituality. In any case, in order to understand the writings of the Fathers one must constrain oneself, focus and live spiritually, for the spirit of the Fathers is perceived through and by the spirit only. Especially helpful are the Ascetical Homilies by Saint Isaac the Syrian, but they must be studied slowly so that they can be assimilated little by little as spiritual food. The Evergetinos is truly of great benefit, because it gives us insight into the Whole spirit of the Holy Fathers, it is helpful because it describes the struggles of the Fathers against each and every one of the passions, and, by learning how they worked on the spiritual life, the soul is greatly assisted. Also, the Synaxaria, the Lives of the Saints, are sacred history and very helpful, especially for young people, but they should not be read as stories.

We do not need great knowledge to be devout. If we concentrate and meditate on the few things we know, our heart will be spiritually embroidered. One may be profoundly affected by a single hymn, while another may feel nothing, even though he may know all the hymns by heart, as he has not entered into the spiritual reality. So, read the Fathers, even one or two lines a day. They are very strengthening vitamins for the soul.

Endnotes

6. See Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies, Homily 1, p. 8.

7. A familiar anthology of ascetic and patristic sayings and incidents, which were compiled by the Monk Paul the Evergetinos, the founder of the famous Holy Monastery of the Theotokos Evergetithos (Benefactress) in Constantinople.

8. Jn 4:23.

From Spiritual Awakening, Vol. II in the Spiritual Counsels series by Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (Souroti, Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Monastery “Evangelist John the Theologian”, 2008), pp. 109-114.