On this day where we remember the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist, here is a beautiful hymn by Saint Bede the Venerable, in which the great Doctor examines John’s death in light of the whole shape and purpose of his life – that of being the one who goes before Our Lord. As the Baptist was a forerunner in life, so he was in death, and the words of Saint Bede’s hymn speak movingly of the deep interconnection between the way Saint John lived his life and the way in which he gave it up, and of the great inner freedom that comes from authentic faith in God – a freedom that remains in even the most trying of circumstances.
May we pray that our lives show the same integrity as Saint John the Baptist, and that we remain true to the same witness he bore in his life and death – a witness which we all are called to uphold. May we also pray, in remembering the Baptist’s martyrdom, for all those faithful Christians in Iraq who continue to bear great suffering in and for the name of Our Lord – their witness, and the witness of Saint John the Baptist, is a tragic but compelling reminder to us all of us as to where our true allegiances lie, and how this should be reflected in every aspect of our lives:
The great forerunner of grace and messenger of truth,
John the Baptist, Christ’s shining torch,
Now becomes the preacher of eternal Light.
The prophetic witness that he never ceased to show
In his message, life, and all his mighty works,
Is signed today by the blood of his martyrdom.
He always went before his Lord:
In birth he declared his coming to the world;
By his baptism of sinners in the Jordan
He foretold the one by whom baptism would be instituted;
And by shedding his blood for him with love,
John the Baptist also experienced beforehand
The death of Christ our Savior, who gave life to the world.
A cruel tyrant may well conceal him in a prison, bound with irons,
Yet in Christ such chains could never bind a man
Whose heart in freedom opens to the Kingdom.
How could the darkness and torments of a dungeon dim
Gain mastery over one who sees Christ’s glory
And receives from him the Holy Spirit’s gifts?
Willingly he gives his head to the executioner’s sword;
How could he lose his head
Whose Head is Christ?
Happy is he who wins today his forerunner’s title
By his departure from this world of ours.
Today his death proclaims what he testified while living:
Christ who comes and now is here.
Could hell hold fast the messenger who escapes it?
The just, the prophets and the martyrs are full of joy
As they go with him to meet the Savior.
All surround John with their praises and their love
And, with him, beg Christ to come at last to those who are his own
O great forerunner of the Redeemer, he delays no longer
Who sets you free from death for evermore.
Led by your Lord,
Enter into glory with the saints!