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Patristic reading and the beheading of John the Baptist

For the past several years, I’ve committed myself to reading passages from the Church Fathers during the Daily Office — certainly on important feasts and saints’ days, but on Sundays and throughout the week as well. This is a Christian practice that goes back, at least, to the beginning of the sixth century.

I don’t use a common resource to make my “choices.” Instead, I read those selections that, historically speaking, have been read by most Christians at most times throughout most countries, a sort of application of the Vincentian Canon to my patristic selections.

Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. That is truly and properly “Catholic,” as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent. (Vincent, Commonitory 4)

Often, but not always, my readings correspond with the selections in the pre-Vatican II Roman Breviary, although mine are usually longer than the Breviary’s snippets as well. (And, yes, I see the irony in making those choices privately. More on that some other time.)

From time to time, I’ll share a little snippet from those readings here at Covenant. Today’s is from Homily II.23 of the Venerable Bede (673-735), appointed for the Beheading of John the Baptist.

We might consider and commit more actively to memory how almighty God allows his chosen ones and beloved servants, those he has predestined to life and his eternal kingdom, to be so stricken in this life by the persecution of the wicked, to be wasted by so many kinds and such fierce punishments and deaths. This is so that when we have viewed the sufferings of perfect men, we may grieve less over the adversities that perhaps have happened to us, and learn instead to esteem it complete joy when we fall into various kinds of temptations (James 1:2), keeping in mind that “The Lord chastises those he loves, and scourges every child whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6).

Now although the principle stands that “We all offend in many ways” (James 3:2), which of us dare to say that blessed John sinned in act or word or dress or food, when the gospel history praises the harshness of his clothing and the frugality of his meals; when everything he said either rendered testimony to the truth or refuted those who spoke against him; when even those who did not like him held in veneration his works of justice? What place could there have been in his inmost heart for sin, when the coming of the Holy Spirit consecrated him even before his birth, when not even in comparison with the ordinary way of human life could he be turned aside from the path of virtue, who from his boyhood on led an entirely solitary life?

And yet a man of this sort, one who was so preeminent, reached the end of his earthly life by shedding his blood after a long period of affliction in chains. He who brought the good news of the freedom of heaven was thrust into chains by wicked people; he who “came to bear testimony to the light” (John 1:8), and who merited to be called “a burning and shining lamp” by the very light which is Christ (John 5:35), was shut up in the darkness of prison; he who was greater than all those born of women (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28) was punished by being beheaded at the request of the basest of women; and he to whom it was granted to baptize the world’s Redeemer, to hear the Father’s voice above him, and to see the grace of the Holy Spirit descending upon him, was baptized in his own blood.

But it was not burdensome for such as these.

The featured image is “Beheading, Plate 2,” uploaded to Flickr by Thomas Hawk. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 





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