Abba Agatho was asked: “Which is more difficult, bodily discipline, or the guard over the inner man?” The Abba said: “Man is like a tree. His bodily discipline is like the leaves of the tree, his guard over the inner man is like the fruit. Scripture says that ‘every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.’ So we ought to take every precaution about guarding the mind, because that is our fruit. Yet we need to be covered with beautiful leaves, the bodily discipline.”
Abba Agatho was wise in understanding, earnest in discipline, armed at all points, careful about keeping up his manual work, sparing in food and clothing.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 10.11
Today is the commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist, also known as St. John the Forerunner. Abba Agatho quotes John’s words from Matthew 3:10 when he says, “Scripture says that ‘every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.’” John is known for his austere asceticism, his call to repentance, and, of course, his baptism of Jesus Christ. According to all four Gospels he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (Isaiah 40:3). In his beheading, Orthodox Christians see an extension of his role as the Forerunner of Christ: “The glorious beheading of the Forerunner was a certain divine dispensation, that the coming of the Saviour might also be preached to those in Hades” (from the Kontakion for the day). I would submit that, in addition to being a forerunner of the Messiah to both the living and the dead, he also “prepared the way of the Lord” for the many Christian ascetics yet to be born, like Abba Agatho, who would follow his example of discipline.
Indeed, what is said in this saying about Abba Agatho is just as true of John: he was “wise in understanding, earnest in discipline, armed at all points, careful about keeping up his manual work, sparing in food and clothing.” I suppose we don’t hear about him doing any “manual work,” but the other qualities fit.
Though we might say, perhaps, that as a prophet his work was his preaching. In this sense he was faithful in all these things to the end. His beheading—for those unfamiliar with the story—came about after his imprisonment by the local governor Herod Antipas. “Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’” (Mark 6:17-18). At least politicians today aren’t able to imprison reporters who call them out on their infidelities.
John’s preaching was simple and universal: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2) He did not care who came to him; the message was the same for all: repent, the Greek implying a transformation of the mind. However, rather than put themselves in his place as prophet and focus on warning others of fire and brimstone, the desert fathers primarily focused on following his call, being more prone to listen than to speak. True, the Messiah had already come, but in a spiritual sense everyone needs to prepare “the way of the Lord” with the “fruit” of the “inner man” and the “leaves” of “bodily discipline.” Indeed, the text from Isaiah can even be read with different punctuation: “a voice of one calling: in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord.” And inasmuch as everyone can flee to the desert in a spiritual sense, we all can mystically follow John’s call as well.
John is our fasting; Christ is our feast.
John is our labor; Christ is our Sabbath.
John is our Lent; Christ is our Pascha.
For ancient Christians (and for many today), the major feasts of the Church were not celebrated apart from a prior period of repentance, fasting, and almsgiving as preparation. Indeed, it even was and often is still customary for Christians to observe a total fast from midnight to morning and confess their sins the night before receiving the Eucharist (see St. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition36.1).
This day, the last major commemoration of the Christian year, is a reminder to persevere in repentance to our final breath, to give of what we have to those who have none, and to remember to fast often in preparation for “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), to “prepare the way of the Lord.”