Today is a significant solemnity for both East and West as we celebrate the Beheading of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John (called "The Passion of St. John the Baptist" in the Roman Church). After denouncing Herod for marrying his brother's wife unlawfully, Herod had St. John arrested. Herod, pleased by his stepdaughter's dancing at his birthday party, foolishly agreed to give her anything she wanted. She consulted with her mother and then asked for John's head on a platter, and the order to behead John the Baptist was issued--reluctantly, as Herod liked to listen to him, even though he found him "puzzling."
As a result, the tradition as we have been taught is to never use plates on today's feast day. It is also a strict fast day.
I often ponder the fact that, for most of Church history, Christian believers did not have the benefit of the printing press and were mostly illiterate. It is a remarkable thing to imagine this, since our current Christian culture, especially outside of the liturgical churches, relies so heavily on reading the Bible or reading commentary about the Bible.
Yet for most of Church history, the way that Christians received their understanding of doctrine and Scripture was through the sacred liturgy and the holy icons. Everything physical in the Church was also catechetical--teaching and conveying the faith. It should still be so today, yet so many churches, particularly in the West, have become incredibly dull and bereft of all the symbolism and meaning which marked them for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Just as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass contains sections that change depending on which feast is being celebrated, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, celebrated in the Eastern Catholic Churches, also has parts such as Troparions and Kontakions that change everyday.
Today, just as in the past, Christian believers receive not only the benefit of the Word of God being proclaimed during the Liturgy; we also hear these changing parts, the Troparions and Kontakions, which have so much to teach about the feasts and why an event or saint is significant.
These parts are catechetical--they teach us about the faith and the holy saints, and give us tangible clues to understanding.
Today's Kontakion for the Beheading of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John is as follows:
The glorious beheading of the Forerunner was part of God's saving plan that the coming of the Savior might be announced even to those in Hades. Let Herodias mourn for she sought a lawless murder because she loved neither the Law of God nor eternal life, but only this false and fleeting life.
There are, of course, many possible interpretations of the story of today's feast, but reading the mind of the Church on this subject, so succinctly expressed in the Kontakion of the Divine Liturgy, brings us into an awareness of the original meaning of this feast.