Today (Aug 29) on the Orthodox church calendar is the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner. It’s an odd feast in that it’s the only feast in the Orthodox Church that I know of that is commemorated by a strict fast rather than a feast. John the Forerunner is an important figure in Orthodoxy. He represents the end of the Old Covenant (while Mary represents the beginning of New Covenant). It’s in the contrast between John and Mary that we can appreciate this odd Feast/Fast day.
There is a wonderful oral tradition about Thomas and Mary at the time of her death. Mary was human exactly like all the rest of us, and because she is human like the rest of us, she died like the rest of us. After her death and funeral, the disciples sealed her in her tomb (the traditional means of burying people at that time and place). The story is that Thomas was several days late to the funeral (just as he was several days late to Jesus’ resurrection appearances). Against the other disciples’ advice, he insisted that the tomb be unsealed so he could offer his final farewell to her body. (Christians, because Jesus Christ both created and then recreated creation, give great honor to the physical world as the place where God works, thus Christians give great honor to dead bodies.) When they opened the tomb so Thomas could properly honor it, her body was gone. The tradition is that her body was translated to heaven in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah.
The theological point of this tradition is that it illustrates the staggering significance of the incarnation. Because of Christ, everything is changed. Not only are our souls saved, but all creation is transformed, including our bodies. Heaven is not a spiritual place somewhere out there, it is, as John describes it in the Apocalypse, a new heaven and a new earth with all of us feasting eternally at the Banquet of the Lamb.
And just as Mary’s ending is befitting the first Christian, the first person of the New Covenant, so John the Forerunner’s end is befitting the end of the Old Covenant and the old order of the world. Sinfulness is seemingly woven into the very fabric of the created order (that is, the old order) and does not give up without a fight. Jesus compared the end of the age to the time of Noah (ie, the flood) and Sodom and Gomorrah (ie, fire falling from the sky). This idea of a watery and fiery end of the world as we have come to know it speaks to the violence involved in extricating God’s good creation (the emergence of the New Covenant) from grip of evil. This salvation that God brings to the world is, from this perspective, a terrible thing.
John the Forerunner’s death by beheading, brought about by the whims of infighting in a wicked ruling family who ultimately manipulated a young (“innocent”?) girl into requesting this gruesome death, is a perfect metaphor for the end of this age. It is terrible and savage, and yet it is necessary so that all can be made new. It is why the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner is the only feast in the Orthodox Church celebrated, not with feasting, but with a strict fast. We joy at that which is to come even as we weep and wail at how it must be accomplished.
So, may you have joyful sorrow on this, the most odd of feast days, commemorating John the Forerunner’s terrible death.