In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Dear brothers and sisters!
The Beheading of the Prophet, Forerunner of the Lord, John the Baptist: The Evangelists Matthew (Mt. 14, 1-12) and Mark (Mark 6, 14-29) provide accounts about the martyric end of John the Baptist in the year 32 after the Birth of Christ.
The prophet of God John openly denounced Herod for having left his lawful wife, the daughter of the Arabian king Aretas, and then instead cohabiting with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (Luke 3:19-20). On his birthday, Herod made a feast for dignitaries, the elders and a thousand chief citizens. Salome, the daughter of Herod, danced before the guests and charmed Herod. In gratitude to the girl, he swore to give her whatever she would ask, up to half his kingdom.
The vile girl on the advice of her wicked mother Herodias asked that she be given the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod became apprehensive, for he feared the wrath of God for the murder of a prophet, whom earlier he had heeded. He also feared the people, who loved the holy Forerunner. But because of the guests and his careless oath, he gave orders to cut off the head of Saint John and to give it to Salome.
The judgment of God came upon Herod, Herodias and Salome, even during their earthly life. Salome, crossing the River Sikoris in winter, fell through the ice. The ice gave way in such a way that her body was in the water, but her head was trapped above the ice. It was similar to how she once had danced with her feet upon the ground, but now she flailed helplessly in the icy water. Thus she was trapped until that time when the sharp ice cut through her neck.
The early veneration of St. John the Baptist was also enhanced by the repeated recovery of his relics, which were glorified by God with numerous miracles. The popularity of the Baptist was testified to not only by all the Evangelists, but also by a contemporary Jewish historian, Joseph Flavius, who, around 90 A. D., recorded that on account of the Baptist’s popularity King Herod Antipas feared an uprising of the people. He continued:
“Herod ordered to kill this John, surnamed the Baptist, although he was a just man and had encouraged the Jews people to a virtuous life as they kept coming to him to be baptized. He exhorted them to be just toward each other, and devoted to God” (cf. Jewish Antiquities VIII, 5).
After St. John’s beheading, the disciples took his body and, according to oral tradition, they buried it in the Samaritan town of Sebaste, outside of Herod’s jurisdiction (cf. St. Jerome, PL 25, 1156). Soon the Baptist’s tomb became a great attraction for pilgrims, since God glorified His faithful servant with many miracles. This was the reason why Emperor Constantine the Great (d. 337 A. D.) ordered a magnificent basilica to be built over John’s tomb in Sebaste.
Unfortunately, in a futile effort to restore paganism, Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363) burnt the venerable relics and dispersed their ashes in the wind (cf. Theodoret, P.G. 82, 1092). Nevertheless, the grave of St. John the Baptist continued to be venerated until the final defeat of the Crusaders in the 12 th century.
According to another pious tradition, Venerable Johanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza (Lk. 8, 3), took the head of St. John the Baptist and buried it on the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem. Almost 300 years later, the venerable head was found for the first time (confirmed by a miracle), and transferred to Emessa, Syria. After some time the heretics took possession of John’s head and concealed it in some monastery. In 453 A. D. it was discovered for the second time in the Arian monastery of Spelaion, near Emessa, and solemnly transferred to Constantinople.
During the iconoclast repressions (the eighth century), the venerable relic was taken by some monks and hidden in Comana, the Province of Pontus, where St. John Chrysostom died (d. 407). During the of Emperor Michael III, in 857, it was discovered for the third time and once again solemnly brought to Constantinople, where it was deposited in the church of the imperial palace.
St. John’s head finally disappeared during the Fourth Crusade 91204 A. D.), when it was taken by crusaders to the West. At the present time several churches in Western Europe claim its possession. It would be hard to prove which of them is authentic.
The veneration of St. John the Baptist is very ancient and became widespread in the East and the West from the early centuries. In the Byzantine Rite every Tuesday is dedicated to his memory, with some special commemorative days:
January 7th – The Synaxis of St. John the Baptist;
February 24th – The First & Second Finding Of The Venerable Head
May 25th – The Third Finding Of Tee Venerable Head
June 24th – The Nativity Of St. John The Baptist
August 29th The Beheading Of St. John The Baptist
September 23rd- The Conception Of St. John The Baptist
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, a Feast day established by the Church,
is also a strict fast day because of the grief of Christians at the violent death of the saint.
Fr. Myroslav Dumych