Saint John the Baptist, the Forerunner of the Messiah, preceded Jesus both in his birth and in his death. His way of life and his preaching closely resemble that of the prophets of the Old Testament, his message being one of repentance and preparation for the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom. At Jesus’ baptism John recognized him as that coming Messiah when he saw the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus. And like the faithful prophets of Israel before him, John did not hesitate to denounce immorality and evil in even the highest places of power, denouncing the incestuous union of Herod Antipas with his niece and half-brother’s wife, Herodias. Herod imprisoned him for doing so, likely also fearing that John’s denunciation might spark a rebellion against him by more zealous Jews. John’s death was brought about through the hatred that Herodias had for him and by Herod’s weakness. When Herodias’ daughter (traditionally named Salome, though her name is not given in the biblical text) pleased the king with her dancing at a feast to celebrate his birthday, he promised here that, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” At her mother’s instigation, she demanded the head of John the Baptist, then languishing in prison at Machaerus by the Dead Sea. Despite his initial reluctance, he fulfilled his promise, and without giving John a trial of any kind, dispatched an executioner to behead him. St Augustine of Hippo commented on John’s death and Herod’s perfidy, “We see how a pledge which was given rashly was criminally kept.”
The commemoration of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist is found in the sanctoral calendar of the Church of England, both in the 1662 Prayer Book and in Common Worship.
O God, you called John the Baptist to be in birth and death the forerunner of your Son: Grant that as John gave his life in witness to truth and righteousness, so we may fearlessly contend for the right, even unto the end; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The Collect is from the 1736 Paris Missal and the 1985 Roman Sacramentary, translated by Philip H. Pfatteicher.