August 29 is the day that Orthodox Christians commemorate the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. A gruesome martyrdom, to be sure. As my friend, Erin Mashburn Moulton, said on Facebook this morning:
Today’s solemn Christian feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist, a day that reminds us of the serious consequences of decisions and foolish promises made in the excitement of a drunken party….
(If you aren’t familiar with the story, you can read it here, from Matthew 13:1-14.)
The Baptist is held up as a model of asceticism, repentance, and other virtues in the Christian faith. But it’s his martyrdom we consider today.
And in so doing, I consider the martyrdom of the nameless men, women and children being slaughtered (and yes, some beheaded) by those who would crush humanity under their feet in order to gain power. It’s more than I can bear to watch the images (many of which, thankfully, are edited out by some news channels) of this evil coming across our television every night. (I refuse to watch during the day.) I shared one of those images in my post three weeks ago, “Crimes Against Humanity and Prayers to the Mother of God.”
About twenty years ago I was spending several mornings a week praying with an Orthodox nun. Often she would have me read the life of the saint of the day. The stories of torture and martyrdom, in particular, often upset me. One day I confessed to her that I didn’t think I would bear up in those situations. That I would deny Christ rather than be tortured or killed. Her response has always stuck with me. She said that people are given special grace from God at those times. Sometimes—not always—they didn’t even feel the pain that was being forced on them. Then she went on to talk about how in some ways it’s more difficult to live a “daily martyrdom” for Christ in contemporary times. To deny ourselves (fasting, moderation, detachment) and control our passions in a time when we are constantly told that “we deserve a break today” and we can “have it our way” and all that.
I’m a terrible ascetic. No, I’m actually not an ascetic at all. I rarely fast and then poorly. I don’t deny myself worldly comforts. And I struggle to control the passions. At least I struggle. Sometimes.
Martyrdom. It’s not for everyone. Today, all I can do is pray, “Holy Saint John the Baptist, pray to God for us!”