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Spiritual Warfare, the Passions and the Commemoration of the Beheading of John the Baptist

August 30, 2012

In addition to Holy Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers, the liturgical texts of the Church offer the faithful a feast of wise teachings about the need to watch over one’s thoughts and the consequences of failing to do so. For example, yesterday we commemorated the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.   In the odes of the canon in honor of the forerunner and chanted during Matins, the faithful discover precious truths about spiritual warfare, the passions, the virtues, and the constant need for spiritual vigilance.

Before delving into the topic of this blog post, it may be helpful to recall the circumstances surrounding the beheading of the Forerunner John.  He had been preaching about sin and the need for repentance.  Specifically, he told Herod that his adulterous relationship with his wife’s brother was sinful and that he must bring that relationship to an end.  There was something, a small spark, in Herod that admired John the Baptist, but given his position in society, he knew he couldn’t continue to allow these public reprimands.  He could lose the respect of the masses.  However, more importantly, Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, insisted that Herod put an end to this religious zealot and he couldn’t stand her nagging.  On the occasion of Herod’s birthday, the opportunity arose for Herodias to get her wish.  Herod, drunk and enjoying himself with his friends, received a special birthday gift from the daughter of Herodias, Salome.  Salome danced for Herod and Herod was so enthralled by her beauty and sensuality that he promised her anything she asked of him.  After consulting with her mother, Salome told Herod that she wanted the head of the Baptist on a platter!  Herod was dismayed at the request, but was ashamed to repudiate his public vow.  So, the vow was fulfilled and the Forerunner was martyred.

The nine odes of this feast reflect the spiritual warfare taking place within Herod, Herodias, and Salome which led to the beheading of the Forerunner.  Ode IV describes it perfectly, “The wretched voluptuary, sick with spiritually harmful drunkenness and the burning of fornication, having been bound by the dancing of a girl’s feet, becameth the murderer of the prophet; for he conceived drunkenness, the mother of fornication, and begat grievous iniquity.”

The liturgical text notes that the cause of the wicked murder is that Herod had given himself over to sickness (ἐκνοσήσας) and that his soul was damaged (ψυχοβλαβή, a word today meaning mentally ill!); being a coward, he gave himself over to sensual pleasures through an adulterous relationship, he allowed himself to become drunk, and finally he found himself bound by a sensual dance. The ode describes a chain of passions and a moral descent, starting with a careless mind and a lustful thought, proceeding to thoughtless actions and irresponsible words, and ending with murder.

In this earthly life, we are either cultivating loving thoughts and making progress in virtue or we are allowing ourselves to be bound by deceitful thoughts of pleasure and wallowing in vice, slipping further and further away from God. Blessed selfless thoughts can lead to the heights of deification, whereas malignant selfish thoughts can lead to the murder of that which is most holy and precious in our world.

Salome was obviously wise in the ways of the world and employed her womanly charms (at the behest of her mother) to obtain her selfish desire.  Ode VII describes her thusly, “Her mind beguiled by the suasions of her mother, she who was the pupil of the devil was neither afraid nor ashamed, nor anything loath to bear thy precious head shamelessly on a platter.”

In a previous post “Philautia versus Agape” I quote Saint Peter of Damascus to describe the state of such a soul, “St. Peter of Damascus observes that concern with pleasing the body eventually ‘entangles us in worldly concerns and in this way leads us to complete unawareness of God’s gifts and of our own faults.”  In such a state vice appears to be virtue, goodness appears to be weakness, and humility as utterly foolish and contemptible.  This should give us all pause.  We can reach a state of such depravity that we are no longer capable of recognizing evil or God’s goodness.  And lest anyone think, “Well, I don’t cheat on my spouse and I’m not a murderer”, keep in mind neither was Herod or Herodias at some earlier point in their lives.  The downward spiral of enslavement to the passions perhaps begins with what we consider a “harmless” flirtation, a second or third drink after a long, hard day.  The devil is patient and is willing to bide his time.  We become enslaved to the passions little by little, over time until they become our default mode of operation. Herod, Herodias, and Salome no doubt felt justified in taking the life of St. John the Baptist.

And yet, this selfish act didn’t bring happiness to any of them.  The Ikos of Ode VI described it this way, “The birthday of Herod was shown to all to be unholy, when, into the midst of those who feasted, the head of the faster was borne as though it were food.  Joy was joined to grief and laughter transformed into bitter lamentation.  For, bearing the head of the Baptist on a platter, the girl entered in among them all, as she said.  And because of Herod’s oath of lamentation fell upon all who reclined there with the king.  She did not gladden them, nor even Herod himself.  For he said: They sorrowed not with true grief, but with that which is feigned and transitory.”

The beautiful commemoration of the Beheading of John the Baptist is a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect upon our own spiritual vigilance.  Are we guarding ourselves against bad thoughts through prayer, fasting and vigils?  Are we humbly submitting ourselves before the mercy of God in confessing our sins?  Are we cultivating the garden of the heart with the virtues of humility, gratitude, and true repentance?

In the words of Ode IX, let us join our voices with those of the Church, seeking the intercession of the Forerunner, “Human passions tremble, and the demons flee in fear from the overshadowing of the grace given thee by God.  But deliver thy flock, which ever magnifieth with faith, O forerunner of the Lord, from temptation by both.” Let us hear his message of repentance and watch over our thoughts.

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