(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's saint, St. John, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)
St. John the Baptist
About two years before Jesus Christ began his mission, John the Baptist, known as the “Forerunner” of the Messiah, appeared publicly in a personal appeal for morality which undoubtedly was instrumental in setting the mood for a reception of the Lord in a world which otherwise might have been less responsive. It was about the year 27, in the reign of Tiberius, that John chose the rather hostile region of Judea, not far from the Dead Sea, as the scene of his campaign, in which he employed a compelling oratory and the symbolic baptism in preparation for the next world. Orthodoxy considers him to be an angel of the Lord, one who prepared the way for Jesus Christ, acknowledging him as the Son of God, and one who died for the Savior.
According to St. Luke, the “Glorious Physician,” St. John the Baptist was a native of the city of Judah, the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, both of whom were of deeply religious lineage. The generation of St. John, the first generation to know the grace and truth of Jesus Christ, comprised a humanity that ranged from wild paganism to holy asceticism. It was the aim of the Baptist to bring all classes to know the nearness of the Kingdom and the need for repentance as a preparation for admission. The drama of St. Paul’s meeting with Christ is equaled in solemnity with the meeting of St. John the Baptist with Jesus, but it was the high honor of St. John to baptize the Son of God.
St. John is adequately referred to in the Bible, and there is no Christian that does not know of his service and that he ultimately was imprisoned in the dungeons of Machaerus and brutally murdered at the order of Herod Antipas. After his death there ensued a veneration that commenced with the recovery of part of his remains in the early Byzantine era and endures in Orthodoxy. According to Luke, the body of the Baptist was buried in Sebasteia in Samaria and cherished as a shrine by the Samaritans, who allowed St. Luke to take with him the right hand of the great Baptist.
This holy relic was brought to Antioch by St. Luke, a native of Syria, who caused to be erected a chapel dedicated to the memory of St. John, a not too pretentious edifice which attracted thousands of Christian pilgrims, many of whom received miraculous cures at the site. For more than eight hundred years this site beckoned Christians from all corners of the Empire, including those from the great capital of Constantinople, the seat of the Emperor Constantine of the house of the so-called Porphyrogenitoi. It was the emperor’s fondest wish that all the holy relics of St. John be brought to the capital city, there to be accessible to many more thousands than in Antioch.
A young deacon by the name of Job was assigned the duty of carrying back to the center of the Byzantine Empire the sacred relics of St. John the Baptist. With an observance of the most solemn ceremony, a procession headed by the emperor and the patriarch brought the holy remains to the magnificent Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, appropriately enough on September 14, the day of the Elevation of the Holy Cross of Jesus Christ. The celebration lasted for several days, the time it took for countless thousands who streamed to the cathedral to pay their respects and to pray at the site of the sacred relic of one of Christendom’s mightiest saints.
It was evident after many years that the most appropriate site for the holy remains of St. John the Baptist was not in a public place where the sanctity was diminished in the babble of the crowds, however pious, but that these relics should abide in the aura of completely ascetic surroundings. The relics were therefore transferred to the great monastery of Mount Athos, a cloister of hallowed monastic edifices among which is one called Dionysiou, chosen as the final resting place for the relics of St. John the Baptist, over which pious monks stand vigil.
The monastic community of Mount Athos, virtually inaccessible on a precipitous promontory extending twenty miles into the sea, is now open to all men who would care to pray at the Chapel of Dionysiou, where reposes the right hand of St. John the Baptist, whose memory is commemorated on January 7, the day following that of the Lord’s baptism.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikimedia.