Beheading of St. John the Baptist

Beheading of St. John the BaptistAugust 29

In addition to the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24, the church, since the fourth century has commemorated the martyrdom of Christ’s Forerunner. The story of the saint’s death is among the most dramatic narratives in Holy Scripture. All three synoptic writers refer to it. St. Mark goes into the greatest detail (Mk. 6:14-29). Matthew provides the text from which the Gospel of the feast is taken (14:1-12); St. Luke is the briefest (Lk. 3:19-29, 9:7-9).

The story of St. John’s beheading is basically as follows. Herod Antipas, the ambitious but weak ruler of most of Palestine, fell in love with Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, and took her for his wife, thus breaking the Jewish law against levirate marriage. John the Baptist fearlessly reprimanded the king for his adulterous union, saying, “It is not lawful for you to have your brothers’s wife” (mk. 6:18). Herod was at first afraid to harm the great prophet; but later, at the instigation of Herodias, he imprisoned him in the fortress of Machaerus. But Herod had not yet made an ultimate decision. He wavered in his resolve and at times even wanted to release John.” But Herodias laid snares for him, and would have liked to put him to death” Mk. 6:19). Her chance came at the birthday feast, which Herod gave for the “princess and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. And Herodias’ own daughter having come in and danced, pleased Herod and his guest. And the King said to the girl, Ask of me what you will, and I will give it to you.’ And he swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask, I will give you even though it be the half of my kingdom’” (Mk 6:21-23). Advised by her revengeful mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod had not anticipated such a request. The Gospel says, “He was struck sad.” But nonetheless, he complied with it “because of his oath and his guest.” He sent the executioner to the prison to behead the man of God. The Gospel tells nothing further about the abasement of the holy head, but legend states that the adulteress was bent on keeping in her possession the tongue of him who did not spare her guilt.

The liturgy describes this tragic end of the Forerunner. St. John Damascene in his sticheras tells in brief the story of the feast: “As the birthday of the impudent Herod was being kept, the object of the dissolute dancer’s oath was achieved: first, the head of the Forerunner was cut off and offered on a platter as food for those reclining. What Loathsome banquet, replete with wickedness and horrible murder!”

According to a creditable tradition, the body of St. John was buried by his disciples in Samaria, outside the borders of Herods’s tetrarchy and under the jurisdiction of the Roman governor. In 362 A.D. , pagans desecrated the grave and burned his remains. Only a small portion of his relics was saved by monks and carried to Alexandria, where St. Athansius deposited the remains in his church. The saint’s head however is venerated at various places.

With regard to the head, in fact, there are two quite different accounts. According to one, given by Sozomen, it is said to have been found in Jerusalem in the possession of monks belonging to a Macedonian sect. They guarded the holy relic until the reign of Theodosius (379 – 395), who brought it to Hebdomen, a suburb of Constantinople, where he ordered a church to be erected in honor of the saint. The paschal chronicle makes mention of this translation of the relic in 391. A.D. According to another tradition of which Rufinus speaks in his Ecclesiastical History, the head was brought from Machaerus to Jerusalem and there buried. In the time of Constantinople, it was taken to Emesa and hidden in a cave. Here it was discovered by a priest named Macellus, the superior of a local monastery, who was acting in a response to a series of dreams. Marcellus informed Bishop Uranius of Emesa of his discovery and the bishop solemnly removed the relic on February 24, 452, A.D., and place it in his cathedral. There are actually three separate findings of the head of St. John recorded in various traditions and each of these is commemorated in the Byzantine rite by special holy day: On May 24 we celebrate the first and second finding, and on May 24 the third finding is commemorated. These precious relics were lost more times. Apart from the Mother of God, there is no saint who is honored by more feasts than St. John the Baptist, The fast is prescribed on this day.

Basil Shereghy

Next Feast Days

August 15 Dormition (Assumption) of the Mother of God
 August 29 Beheading of St. John the Baptist