“Seest Thou what suffer those who censure,
O Word of God, the faults of the unclean.
Not being able to bear censure,
lo, Herod cut off my head, O Savior.”
Today, on the 29th day of the month of August, the Holy Church commemorates the Beheading of the Holy, Glorious, and Honorable Prophet and Forerunner of Christ our God, John the Baptist.
Of this holy day, which the Church observes with a strict fast, the Blessed Bishop of Hippo, Augustine, writes, “So John decreased by an head, even as Christ’s height was made higher on the Cross. The truth drew hatred. It could not be borne in patience that the holy man of God should utter a reproof, although he sought by his reproof nothing but the soul’s health of them to whom he addressed it. And they repaid him evil for the good he offered them.
“For what could the Baptist say but that whereof he was full? And what could they answer him but that whereof they were full? He sowed wheat, but he reaped thorns. He had said unto the king: It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. Lust had got the better of the king, and he kept a woman whom it was not lawful for him to have, even his brother’s wife.
“But she pleased him, so that his cruelty was lulled. He respected the Saint who had spoken the truth to him. But the vile woman conceived hatred, and in due time brought forth what she had conceived. And when she brought forth, she bore a dancing girl who through her lasciviousness accomplished murder.”
How often does the truth, which saves and enlightens and sets free, draw out the hatred of those who oppose it because, by their evil manner of living, they have chosen to follow a lie. The number of lies in the world has appeared to increase to the point where many would not only oppose truth, but even refuse to acknowlege its existence, preferring instead to make many truths for themselves, submitting themselves to none of them in actuality, so much has man’s worship of himself supplanted the worship of God.
The preaching of the Honorable Forerunner, however, cut through the lies with which Herod, Herodias, and Salome had fooled themselves. Their evils were unmasked, not so that they would be shamed and humiliated, but so that they might recognize their sins and repent of them. Instead of repentance, however, their wounded pride moved them to resentment, and they returned evil for good.
For they did not believe the blessed man of God had done them a service out of love for the salvation of their souls, but instead they called good evil, and justified murder as a just redress for being wronged.
This scenario still plays out today, though too few censure evil with the grace, innocence, and spiritual authority of the Honorable Forerunner of Christ.
The Kontakion of today’s Feast, like all the hymns for the occasion, is most instructive:
“The beheading of the glorious Forerunner was by divine providence, that the coming of the Savior might be preached to those in hades. Let Herodias, therefore, mourn, she who sought unlawful murder; for she hath not affected the law of God, nor hath she sought eternal life, preferring the worldly one.”
Those who would prefer the passing worldly life to the real, eternal one are greatly to be pitied, but those who go so far as to seek unlawful murder mourn forever through the justice of God. This is not a truth that many people like to think about, but just because something is unpleasant does not make it uninstructive and inconducive to salvation. Some misguided and pitiable persons even go so far as to distort the truth and say that there will be no eternal punishment, or that God will destroy the souls of sinners to prevent them from suffering eternally. They think that this makes God more merciful. But, by teaching such things, they distort the Holy Gospel itself, a very grave crime.
For more on the Orthodox teaching on the eternal punishment, see Elder Cleopa’s excellent book “The Truth of our Faith,” Chapter 17 “On the Eternal Torments of Hell.”
Here’s an excerpt:
“God offers eternal joy to the righteous, who struggled for a time to carry out good works here on earth, but as a just and righteous God, He also chastises eternally the ungodly that transgressed in this temporal life. Why is it so? Because the wounds incurred from sin that are not healed in this life through the appropriate repentance will remain infected eternally in the presence of God.”
And, from “Nihilism,” by Fr. Seraphim Rose: “Hell is the love of God rejected…But God loves even such men too much to allow them simply to ‘forget’ Him and ‘pass away’…out of His presence which alone is life to men; He offers, even to those in Hell, His Love, which is torment to those who have not prepared themselves in this life to receive it.”
God loves every person, and this continues for eternity. Everyone feels the love. How we will feel it depends on us. If we reject God’s love in this life, we make a choice for eternal punishment–for by the mercy of God eternity is the unmitigated experience of God’s love. Of course, God wants everyone to accept His love, but He made us free to choose, giving us this life to make that choice. If God destroyed someone because He didn’t want them to suffer, that would mean that He would also be cutting them off from His love and going back on His promises of eternal life. If God destroyed a person, completely obliterated him, just so he wouldn’t suffer, He would be a very terrible God indeed. Who would love such a being that kills in the name of mercy? It would not be mercy at all, really.
So, in that all experience the fulfillment of the promises of God and the unmitigated experience of God’s love in eternity, we can say with several of the saints, wherever we find ourselves, in blessedness or in torment, glory to God for all things. God is just and merciful in all that He has done, is doing, and will do for us. The blame is rather with us for our sins. But, then, let us repent of them and God will forgive us and grant us again the opportunity to embrace His love. And so again and again until the hour God appoints for our eternal reunion with Him.
But those who reject God’s love, reject the truth in this life cannot embrace it in eternity. There, no longer able to lie to themselves, they are faced with the eternal revelation of truth and their rejection of it. Thus, they mourn, knowing they have none but themselves to blame.
On this day is commemorated also our Holy Father among the Saints Medericus (or Merry) of Autun in France (+700).
“St. Merry was born at Autun, in the 7th century, and from an early age realized that the end of human life is the sanctification and salvation of the soul. That he might wholly give himself to God, when he was still very young, he entered a local monastery, probably St. Martin’s in Autun.
“In that monastery then lived 54 fervent monks, whose penitential and regular lives were an object of edification to the whole country. Merry, in this company, grew up in habits of virtue by example, walking before them in every duty; and the reputation of his sanctity drew the eyes of all men upon him.
“The distractions which continual consultations from all parts gave him, and a fear of falling into vanity, made him resign his office and retire into a forest four miles from Autun, where he lay hid for some time. He earned himself all necessaries of life by the labor of his hands, and found this solitude sweet by the liberty it gave him of employing his time in heavenly contemplation and work.
“The place of his retreat at length becoming public, and being struck down by sickness, he was obliged to return to the monastery. After having edified his brethren and strengthened them in religious perfection, he again left them in old age in order to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Germanus of Paris (also a native of Autun) in that city.
“There, with one companion, St. Frou (or Frodulf), he chose his abode in a small cell adjoining a chapel dedicated in honor of St. Peter, in the north suburb of the city; and, after two years and nine months during which he bore with patience a painful lingering illness, he died happily about the year 700.”
–from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Complete Edition, 1956.
Through the prayers of St. John the Baptist, St. Merry, and all the Saints, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us for Thou art good and lovest mankind. Amen.