St. John is the Forerunner and Baptizer of the Savior Christ. He is the one who prophesied the Messiah from his mother’s womb and has later fulfilled this proclamation on the banks of the Jordan. He was the one who advised people toward repentance because “the kingdom of the heavens was near.” He welcomed and counseled those who understood the message. He is the one who has shown Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Further yet, he is the one who has scolded Herod for the sin of adultery with his sister-in-law.
We know the tragic episode of the death of St. John. The holy evangelist Mark tells us that “for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.” Here we have the description of the relationship between a king and an adviser valued for his wisdom. Moreover, we note the respect toward the adviser, for he was a “just and holy” man. But the sinful passion clouded the mind of the king and he makes an oath to Herodias’ daughter to grant her whatever she asks up to half his kingdom. The passions were at war with the poor king. Adultery does not appear to be conquered by avarice, for he does not forget to keep half his kingdom. Above all however, Herod proved his cruelty by fulfilling an unlawful oath. He did not want to sadden Herodias’ daughter, writes St. Mark, and fulfills her request, and has St. John beheaded even though he was “exceedingly sorry”. (Mark 6:26) This event seems to herald another wretched event of a leader who washed his hands saying that he is not guilty of the blood of another just man, of Christ. Those chosen to do justice show themselves unworthy of their vocation and murderers, being conquered by tempting passions. But history notes the tragic end of all these have dishonored their calling and spilled honest blood.
We understand now why we fast on this day. We fast so as to not overlook that temptation can lead to murder, that satisfying the stomach and the clouding of the mind by drinking can lead us to make tragic decisions in our life. Moreover, this event reminds us that that fasting is a restraint for our passions, and self-restraint helps our prayer and meditation.
Two thousand years ago St. John was the prophet of repentance, because his judgment was nearing. From then until today we have his example of a martyr’s death for justice and truth. But this example is not a history lesson which we may forget, but a permanent cry of the “just and holy one” that repentance is necessary as preparation for entrance into the Kingdom.