By Elizabeth Anderson
The new trial use commemorations approved by the Episcopal Church’s 2018 General Convention include several feasts that are both ancient and widespread, despite their previous absence from the Episcopal Church’s calendar. Among these is the Beheading of John the Baptist on August 29th (transferred to the 30th this year). The beheading of John the Baptist was one of the earliest Christian liturgical commemorations, and it was even included on the relatively sparse calendar of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and on the calendars of most other Anglican provinces. However, the feast was removed from the first American Prayer Book in 1789 and has never been restored.
Given the biblical, Anglican, and ecumenical nature of the commemoration, one might assume that the proposal to add it to Lesser Feasts and Fasts passed easily and without debate. In fact, however, it provoked some rather lively testimony at hearings, with complaints that it was too violent, too bloody, and not actually edifying — a senseless tragedy rather than a martyr’s witness. Can such a violent story possibly resonate today? Indeed, some objectors to the commemoration protested that John the Baptist died after an imprisonment that left him doubting whether Jesus was even the Messiah at all. Would it not, then, be more salutary to commemorate only John’s nativity (June 24th), and tactfully pass over the story’s end?
Christians have historically commemorated most saints on the date of their death, rather than the day of their birth. Indeed, Origen’s Homily 8 on Leviticus includes the caustic reminder that the only biblical figures we see celebrating their own birthdays are Pharaoh and Herod, both dubious role models for the faithful. (Pro tip: Origen’s quotation works wonderfully on birthday cards for all your theologian friends!) Apart from Jesus himself, the two historical exceptions to this pattern are John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus. In both cases, ancient Church tradition commemorates the beginning of their earthly life as well as its conclusion. Both John and Mary are seen as icons of humanity — the two human actors whose cooperation with divine grace makes Christ’s nativity and his baptism possible.
In the case of John the Baptist, the account of his life given in Church tradition suggests that his life was bookended by trauma. The gaps in the biblical account present a bit of a puzzle. How, exactly, does John make the mysterious transition from his birth at the very center of priestly privilege to a solitary figure in the wilderness, critiquing the very institutions he should have grown up to represent? How did this man, who should have been a priest, who (according to early tradition if not Scripture) was the only son of the high priest, end up forsaking all of his ritual roles and religious responsibilities to engage in some kind of unauthorized liturgical experimentation out in the desert? When the fathers of the Church pondered this seeming mystery, the answer that they invariably gave was “trauma.”
In Matthew 23:35 (and Luke 11:51), Jesus refers to someone named Zechariah, a priest who was murdered in the sanctuary of the temple. In the Protoevangelium of James, and in Church fathers such as Origen, Augustine, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom, this Zechariah is identified as the father of John the Baptist. According to this traditional account, during Herod’s massacre of the infants, Zechariah was slain by Herod’s soldiers while he was ministering at the altar, and Elizabeth and the infant John fled to the desert.
Modern biblical scholars will assure us that this conflation of Zechariahs is simply an unfortunate error, a case of mistaken identity. But whether or not this early Christian tradition has anything helpful to offer for some kind of “quest for the historical John the Baptist” (which admittedly it probably does not), it nevertheless strikes me as spiritually insightful. We do not ultimately know the story of how John was wrested from the center of privilege to the margins of his society, but the suggestion that it was the result of trauma resonates with how his story ends, and may offer wisdom about how suffering upends our own vocational stories and trajectories, both personal and institutional.
John would not be the only biblical figure to be raised in the desert by a single mother. The parallel with Hagar and Ishmael is striking. On the surface, the pairings could not be more different: the slave woman versus the wife of the high priest; the rejected child versus the child whose miraculous conception was announced by an angel. John’s birth to elderly parents through divine intervention would seem to give him more in common with Isaac than with Ishmael. And yet despite their very different backgrounds, both Hagar and Elizabeth find themselves fleeing into the desert, both called to raise a child with a unique vocation in God’s plan, both given this responsibility as a single mother, in a society where life as a woman without male protection was precarious.
Indeed, it is often in our sufferings that we are united most deeply to those whose backgrounds might ostensibly differ from our own the most dramatically. In my spirituality classes and spiritual direction groups, I often begin by having people share their spiritual autobiographies. They aren’t necessarily stories of how God has worked through suffering and trauma, but I find that most often they are. The poet Yehuda Amichai has written eloquently of “the precision of pain and the blurriness of joy.” Vocation and identity are often found through suffering transformed and redeemed; the martyrs, like the resurrected Christ, are often portrayed still bearing their wounds.
When I first started the practice of assigning spiritual autobiographies, I worried that the disparate backgrounds of the participants might make it difficult for them to connect with one another. Would members of the group who were wealthy and white ever be able to understand the particular struggles of a young Black woman who grew up in poverty? Would the nonbinary student find a community that would truly listen to their story of God’s work in their life? Would those whose backgrounds had been, at least on the surface, more privileged find that this would be a space where they, too, could be vulnerable? My worries were unfounded. Each person’s story is unique and unrepeatable, but there are also particular kinds of human suffering that cut across all difference, and we found these were common to all: the death of a classmate by suicide, a parent living with cancer, a sibling struggling with addiction, regret over a mistake made, the grief of a broken heart. No one’s suffering is identical, but no one is exempt from it.
It has frequently been said during the COVID-19 pandemic that we are not all in the same boat; we are merely in the same storm. Although this can often be an important corrective to a tendency to universalize the pandemic experience, drawing our attention to its real inequities and disparities, it is also true that few of us have made it through the last year and a half entirely unscathed, whether we have experienced the stresses of working parents homeschooling their children or sending them to school unvaccinated, the overwhelming isolation of those living alone, the precarity of those working in low wage jobs whose labor enabled others to remain safely home, or the secondary trauma of health care workers on the front lines. We have all suffered differently, but we have all suffered. At such a time, the Church needs to remember the beheading of John the Baptist just as much as the joyful miracle of his birth.
Let us return to John in prison, and his seemingly despairing query to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect another?” (Matt. 11:3, Luke 7:19). This is often read as John having lost faith in Jesus and expecting some other genre of Messiah entirely. This would be convenient for me, since I’m currently working on a book about spiritual dryness, desertion, and abandonment by God in Christian spirituality. But as I have spent time with this text, I think I read it rather differently.
Jesus’ response to John alludes to Isaiah, noting that the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. However, it is a selective quotation, omitting the promise in Isaiah 42:7 about bringing prisoners out of the dungeons and freeing captives. Given that John asks the question while in prison, this is presumably the part that he is the most concerned with, and it’s hard to imagine that he would have been comforted by the reminder that Jesus was doing everything else in the messianic job description! The noted omission of prisoners from Jesus’ ministry makes John’s question sound less doubtful and more like a rather pointed challenge.
Indeed, it is an awkward fact that Jesus doesn’t seem to do very much freeing of prisoners in the Bible at all, unless we interpret it in a purely metaphorical sense, as the proclamation of freedom from sin and death. Yet this seems insufficient. After all, Christ’s miraculous healings surely also testified to the reality of spiritual healing, but nevertheless included a decidedly non-metaphorical component. One other possibility, therefore, is to invoke 1 Peter 3:19, which states that after his death Christ descended to Hades to preach to the “spirits in prison.” According to this understanding, common among Orthodox Christian writers, it was part of the vocation of John the Baptist to be the forerunner and proclaimer of Christ not only among the living but also among the dead — even though this was by its nature a vocation that required him to die. John’s story, then, is one that ends in perplexity, but also faithfulness in the face of an implacable vocation from an inscrutable Providence.
The Church needs the feast of John’s beheading now more than ever. To allow John’s nativity to be our only liturgical commemoration of him is to tell a sanitized story, only the miraculous birth of a divinely promised child rather than the suffering that would be entwined with his vocation from the beginning. During a time of global pandemic, racial strife, climate disaster, and political upheaval, the Church needs to proclaim all of John’s story, not only the comfortable parts.
Dr. Elizabeth Anderson (PhD, Yale) is a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute.