(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate the third finding of the head of John the Baptist, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Third Finding of the Head of Saint John the Baptist
There are not enough days in the calendar year to set aside one for every religious commemoration. But of the 365 days of the solar year allowed us, each could bear some mention of the great St. John the Baptist without wearing thin the reputation of this mighty figure of Christianity. Referred to as the prefiguration of Jesus Christ, he is remembered on more than one occasion even though it is in seemingly grisly reference to the head that was severed from his body to grant a favor by a callous monarch to a scatterbrained girl.
The eminent St. John the Baptist is commemorated by the Greek Orthodox Church in five different observances as follows: (1) the Conception of St. John the Baptist on September 23, (2) the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24, (3) the official Feast Day of St. John the Baptist on January 7, (4) the First and Second Findings of the Relics of St. John on February 24, and (5) the Third Finding of the Relics of St. John on May 25. It is only fitting that St. John, the forerunner of the Savior for whom he prepared the way, be given at least these five commemorative days, if only for the fact that Jesus Himself said of him in the Gospel of St. Luke (7:25-28): “Behold, they which are gorgeously appareled and live delicately in the king’s court. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet. This is he, of whom it is written. Behold, I send my messenger before thy face which shall prepare the way before thee. For I say unto you, among those who are born unto woman, there is no greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he that is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he...”
It was St. Theodore the Studite (feast day, November 11) who had written in some detail about the third discovery of the “kara” (head) of St. John the Baptist, a most precious relic of Christendom which seems to have been intact at least until the ninth century. Since then it has been fragmented so as to appear in several shrines throughout the Christian world. According to St. Theodore, the skull had been kept in Constantinople intact, only to be stolen and eventually returned. What is now certain is that the fragmented skull is preserved in bits and pieces in a Mt. Athos monastery, as well as in Jerusalem, Hungary and other places.
The historian George Kodinos maintains that the “kara” of St. John was taken from Jerusalem to Cilicia by followers of a Macedonian group considered to be Christian heretics and then ordered by the Emperor Valens to be placed in Constantinople. After disappearing from its appointed spot, it turned up again, and on the order of Emperor Theodosios it was placed in a shrine in an area known as Ebdomon (Seventh). That fragment, which is venerated on Mt. Athos, rests in honored glory in the Monastery of Dionysios.
The left hand of St. John was stolen by Turks and is now on display with other Turkish artifacts in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople. The Christian finds comfort in the fact that, although a hand of this beloved saint might rest in a most unlikely place, his spirit is in the hearts of the followers of Jesus Christ throughout the globe.
Quite naturally, the fragmentation and dissemination of the relics of St. John have given rise to stories stemming from the early centuries down through the ages, past the Crusades to the present day. If they were all to be believed, there would be as many slivers of St. John’s earthly remains as there are grains of sand in the desert. It is enough, therefore, to accept what has been written by St. Theodore the Studite and an historian who took great pains in researching the matter.
In the official observance on May 25, the “Third Finding of the Kara” of St. John the Baptist is observed with the memorial hymn whose words are as follows: “Verily from the earth rose the head of the Forerunner, bequeathing to believers incorruptible rays of healing, gathering the crowds of angels from above and calling below the races of mankind to address their voices in unison to Glory of Christ God.” To this the Christian of any denomination can add a humble and sincere “Amen.”