A Word About Losing One’s Head

Today, Aug. 29, is an important Feast Day in the whole Christian Church (except Protestantism, which generally does not observe feasts at all): The Commemoration of the Beheading of John the Forerunner, also called John the Baptist. It is a feast that is commemorated by fasting rather than feasting because of the grief the Church expresses for the violent death of this last Old Testament martyr.

Icon of Beheading  of St John the Forerunner

Icon of Beheading of St John the Forerunner

While it is a solemn commemoration, it remains a happy feast, in spite of the death of John. As the invitation to evening prayer on this day says (in the Liturgy of the Hours), “Let us pray joyfully to God our Father who called John the Baptist to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of Christ.” And so even though we face what would normally be frightful – the fact of martyrdom – we do so with both joy and confidence because it is God who leads us, even when the path goes into darkness as deep as this. As the first antiphon proclaims, “Do not be afraid to face them, for I am with you, says the Lord.”

We had school yesterday (Saturday) at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy (or, CHA). In order to get the required number of academic days the school has four Saturday school days each year. They are always theme days. Yesterday was called Sam Mason Day. Sam Mason is an almost unknown criminal who pirated steam ships and barges along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at the turn of the century shortly after the American Revolutionary War. When a $7,000 reward was offered for Mason, dead or alive, his gang killed him, and not unlike Salome (Herodias’ daughter – Mt. 14:6) cut off his head, and brought the bodiless head to the sheriff’s office at the next town south of Port Gibson, MS to receive the prize. (The gang was recognized and subsequently arrested instead of getting the reward.)

CHA has a bronze statue of Sam Mason’s head mounted along the road about 150 or 200 yards from the dining facility. When a cadet breaks a rule (talking when in formation, not having his uniform in proper order, etc.) he is told to “run to the road,” whereupon he runs out to the bronze bust and dope slaps Sam Mason’s head. Upon returning, he stands at attention before his commanding officer and shouts, “Actions have consequences, sir!”

Okay, it’s kind of a corny story and a corny tradition. But the whole thing is memorable for adolescents, so it’s an effective form of discipline.

Of course, being good Evangelical Protestants, the administration and teaching staff are oblivious to the fact that every year Sam Mason Day (the first Saturday of the CHA academic year) is always very near Aug. 29 (the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner).

Here at CHA losing one’s head is always considered a bad thing. This is why the cadets dope slap Sam Mason every time they do something dopey. After all, “actions have consequences.”

Ironically, as an Orthodox Christian who is aware of the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner, I too confess that “actions have consequences,” but in a very different context. As Jesus warned his disciples, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

One of the lessons we learn from St. John the Forerunner is that it’s not a bad thing to lose one’s head if one loses it for the sake of the Gospel. A second thing we learn from St. John the Forerunner is that if you are dopey enough to become a Christian (this statement being stated from the worldly perspective), and if you actually live your life like a Christian, then you should assume that the world will hate you and you too might lose your head. The world hated Jesus. So if you are a follower of Jesus it only makes sense that the world will hate you also. Actions (even holy actions) have consequences.

But, when as a Christian, I get my focus off myself and on to Jesus Christ where it belongs … when I am transformed into a servant of God rather than a servant of my own will and desires, I discover that losing one’s head is not always a bad thing.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” [ Rev. 7:13-17]