Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Liturgical Notes on the Beheading of St John the Baptist

The Beheading of St John the Baptist is one of the oldest and most universal feasts that exists, attested in the sermons of the some of the Church Fathers already in the early fifth century; it is kept on the same day in the Roman, Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Gallican and Byzantine Rites. However, even though the Church’s devotion to the Saints in ancient times was very much focused on the martyrs, the day which commemorates John’s martyrdom has always been less celebrated than that of his birth; thus we find among the works of St Augustine fifteen sermons for the feast of his Nativity, but only two for his Beheading. The Nativity also had a vigil from very ancient times, and somewhat later, was given an octave, while the Beheading has neither. Durandus explains that this is because at John’s birth “many rejoiced”, as the Angel said, but at his death, he did not go straight to heaven, which was not yet opened by the death and Resurrection of Christ.

The Beheading of St John the Baptist, by Caravaggio, 1608; from the Co-cathedral of St John in Valletta, Malta.
In the Roman Rite, the feast of the Nativity has a fully proper Mass and Office, while on the Beheading, the majority of the liturgical texts are shared with other Martyrs. The Introit of the Mass is one normally used for Virgin Martyrs, but was selected for his feast day as a text particular apposite to the cause of his death, that he spoke to King Herod the truth about his unlawful “marriage” to his sister-in-law. “I spoke of thy testimonies before kings, and I was not ashamed; and I meditated also on thy commandments, which I loved.”


This is also expressed by the Epistle of the Mass, Jeremiah 1, 17-19, which follows from the Epistle of the vigil of his Nativity, verses 4-10 of the same chapter.

“Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak to them all that I command thee. Be not afraid at their presence: for I will make thee not to fear their countenance. For behold I have made thee this day a fortified city, and a pillar of iron, and a wall of brass, over all the land, to the kings of Juda, to the princes thereof, and to the priests, and to the people of the land. And they shall fight against thee, and shall not prevail: for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee.”

The Roman Rite traditionally makes very little use of the Gospel of St Mark, notwithstanding the evangelist’s traditional association with the first bishop of Rome. There are three very prominent exceptions: Easter and the Ascension among the feasts of the Lord, and today’s feast among those of the Saints, on which the Gospel is Mark 6, 17-29. The same Gospel is read in the Ambrosian Rite, and also in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, with one additional verse at the end.

In the Roman version of the Divine Office, the majority of the musical propers (antiphons, responsories, hymns) are taken from the common Office of a single Martyr, but there are a number of propers as well, which follow the text of this Gospel fairly closely. At Second Vespers, the antiphon for the Magnificat is slightly more rhetorical than the Gospel itself. “The unbelieving King sent his loathsome messengers, and commanded that John the Baptist’s head should be cut off.”

A page of the Antiphonary of Hartker, written at the monastery of St Gallen in Switzerland at the end of the 10th century. (Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 391, p. 107 – Antiphonarium officii https://www.e-codices.ch/en/list/one/csg/0391)
Other Uses of the Roman Rite have more proper texts, which vary greatly from one to another; most of these are also taken from the Gospel, with some notable exceptions. The Premonstratensians have this extraordinary antiphon, the text of which comes from a sermon by St Peter Chrysologus, (ca. 380-450), bishop of Ravenna, whom Pope Benedict XIII declared a Doctor of the Church in 1729. As Canons Regular, St Augustine is one of the principal patrons of their order, and his feast therefore ranks higher than that of the Beheading; this antiphon is used to commemorate the latter at Vespers on August 28th.

Aña Joannes schola virtutum, magisterium vitae, sanctitatis forma, norma justitiae, virginitatis speculum, pudicitiae titulus, castitatis exemplum, poenitentium via, peccatorum venia, fidei disciplina; Joannes major homine, par Angelis, legis summa Evangelii satio, Apostolorum vox, silentium Prophetarum, lucerna mundi, Praecursor Judicis, Christi metator, Domini testis, totius medius Trinitatis: hic tantus datur incestui, traditur adulterae, addicitur saltatrici.

Aña John, the school of virtues, the master of life, the form of holiness, the norm of justice, the mirror of virginity, the glory of modesty, the model of chastity, the way of penitents, the forgiveness of sinners, the discipline of the Faith; John greater than man, equal to the Angels, the greatest plant of the law of the Gospel, the voice of the Apostles, the silence of the Prophets, the light of the world, the Forerunner of the Judge, that showeth Christ, the witness of the Lord, that standeth amid the whole Trinity; this man so great is handed over to the unchaste, he is delivered to the adulteress, he is consigned to the dancer.

An ancient responsory for Matins places in the mouth of St John as he dies in prison the words later later spoken by his cousin on the Cross; note how the doxology is cleverly incorporated into the repetition. It appears in the Dominican Office with a slight variation.

R. In medio carceris stabat beatus Joannes; voce magna clamavit et dixit: * Domine Deus meus, * in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum. V. Misit rex, et decollari jussit Joannem in carcere, orantem et dicentem. Domine Deus meus. Gloria Patri. In manus…

R. In the midst of the prison stood the blessed John; with a great voice he cried out and said, * “O Lord, my God, * into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” V. The king sent, and ordered John to be beheaded in the prison, as he prayed and said, “O Lord my God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

There is also an antiphon used by the Cistercians and Dominicans among others, whose text is actually that of a Collect attested in the Gelasian Sacramentary; a surprising number of collects were set to music in this fashion in the Middle Ages.

Aña Perpetuis nos, Domine, sancti Ioannis Baptistae tuere praesidiis; et quanto fragiliores sumus, tanto magis necessariis attolle suffragiis.

Aña Defend us, o Lord, by the perpetual protection of St John the Baptist; and the more fragile we are, the more do Thou sustain us by such prayers as we need.

A Greek icon of the Beheading of St John from the second half of the 18th century.
The Byzantine Liturgy is famous for the use of highly complex rhetorical language in its Office texts, and those of the “Cutting-off of the Honorable Head of the Holy and Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John” are no exception. The following hymn is sung at the blessing of bread (‘artoklasia’ or ‘litia’) which is held at the end of Vespers on major feast days. Its author seems to presume that Salome is the daughter of Herodias with Herod, rather than with Philip, and that Herod connived with her at the oath, as an excuse for the murder.

Today, the mother of the murder, skilled in the works of impiety, contrives with murderous counsel to send her own wanton daughter, born from a lawless embrace, against the greatest of the prophets chosen by God. For as the most hateful Herod completes the banquet of his unlawful birthday, he contrives with an oath to be asked for the honorable head of God’s herald, whence pour forth wonders. And this he accomplished, the senseless man, giving it as a reward for a vulgar dance, for the sake of his oath. Nonetheless, the prophet of Christ’s coming did not cease to denounce their union that was hated of God, even after his death; but he cried out in rebuke, saying “It is not licit for you to commit adultery with the wife of your brother Philip.” Oh, this birthday that slayeth the prophet, this banquet full of blood! But let us, in accordance with piety, in the beheading of the Forerunner, keep the festival, brightly clad, and rejoicing as if on an auspicious day, and ask him to propitiate the Trinity for us, to deliver us from every danger and calamity, and save our souls.

(In Greek, the words “skilled in the works of impiety” are a single word, “ἀνοσιουργότροπος” (anosiurgotropos), which in Church Slavonic becomes the jaw-cracking eleven-syllable “непреподобнодѣлоѻбразнаѧ” (neprepodobnodjeloobraznaja). )

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