29th August Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist

This is not the sort of feast we find conducive to celebration these days. We probably feel it would be a little distasteful to make much of it. However in the Middle Ages, when life was cheap, and many people died young both from illness and warfare it was very popular. In the chapel up in the Pyrenees in the Gavarnie valley above Lourdes, which is on one of the pilgrimage routes over the mountains, there is a dramatic portrayal of the life of John the Baptist with a very bloody scene of his death. For many Christians to follow Jesus to the ultimate and give up your life for him was always seen as the deepest sign that you wanted to share in his life and death, and so his resurrection. Those who gave their lives as an example of this were held in high regard, and John was the first, not to follow, but to prepare us for what was to come. The death of a clearly innocent man at the hands of the worldly king, whose excuse was that he had to please his courtiers and guests. The apparently strong man in earthly terms has his weakness revealed at the hands of, by the death of, the poor preacher. To those who suffered so much at the hands of tyrants and a powerful class of knights this was a validation of their own lives and deaths. For us today we hate to speak of death, we hide it from children. Yet it is all around us. The powerful are still here, the deaths of the innocents are numerous. We may dislike the scenes of John’s death, but it should remind us of the need to confront death honestly and openly, especially those of the innocents, and understand that our hope is still beyond this world to which all death is merely a gateway.

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