(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 celebrate the Findings of the Head of St. John the Baptist, found in Volume 1 of the series.)
The Findings of the Head of John the Baptist
It is not enough that the commemoration of St. John the Baptist be observed annually with his feast day, because earthbound man, aware that the soul is intact, clings to a terrestrial relic of a revered saint of the magnitude of St. John as a Christian treasure so valued that the relic itself merits veneration on the occasion of its discovery. Grisly as it may sound, it is altogether fitting that a separate day be set aside for veneration of the head of the great Baptist, the noble head that was separated from the body of a most holy man at the whim of a most debased ruler.
Of the thousands of heads that have rolled in execution in the grim history of capital punishment, only that of St. John the Baptist is as much a part of Christian heritage as it was a part of his human form. The result is that a Christian can put out of his mind the brutality of a severed head and look upon it as a symbol of the Christian spirit that is constantly brought to mind by the crucified Christ. February 24 marks the commemorative date of the lost-and-found relic known as the “kara,” or head of St. John, in two incidents. A third recovery is recounted on yet another feast day, May 25.
The gruesome details of the death of St. John the Baptist form a dark chapter in history known to countless numbers other than those who worship Jesus Christ. It is too often forgotten, however, that St. John was not only a prefiguration of the Messiah, but his cousin as well, a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose exhortations anticipated the mission of the Savior. When he was dragged from the prison cell of Machaerus, it was at the bidding of the infamous Herod – not to still his stout heart, but to make a present of the head of this spiritual giant to a heartless girl whose mother shared in the guilt of the most senseless killing in history.
According to Eastern historians of the Church, the body of St. John was allowed to be taken for burial in Sebaste, Samaria. But the head, which had been taken to the dance hall for the most depraved of pagan orgies, was subsequently cast aside only to be discovered some time later, as if by divine edict, by two pilgrims en route to the tomb of Christ. The treasured relic was thereafter passed on to a potter who took it with him to the city of Emesa where it remained in his family until it came into possession of a monk named Eustachios. Because he subscribed to the Arian doctrine, this monk was not in the mainstream of Orthodoxy. He chose to hide the relic in a cave, and he died in the reign of Valentinian (431) without revealing the whereabouts of the priceless relic of antiquity.
The relic was lost again, but was regained for posterity when it was discovered shortly after the monk’s death by no less a figure than Bishop Uranios. Uranios was a prominent clergyman of that era who might have been led to the relic by a divine hand, but who more than likely came upon it by accident when he sought out the cave for one of his many periods of solitude which he observed in monk-like fashion. He was in the habit of withdrawing into the recesses of a cave for prayer and fasting when he entered the cave of the Arian monk.
Bishop Uranios knew that the cave had been inhabited when he found a large pitcher in which water was usually stored, but which now contained the holy relic which he instantly recognized to be that of St. John the Baptist. When he knelt in reverence before this water pitcher, he felt a serenity and a divine presence which convinced him that it was the precious relic of St. John. Not one to retain this keepsake for his own as the monk had, he removed it to his church where it became a veritable shrine for all to visit.
Second in sanctity only to the tomb of the Savior, the relic of St. John the Baptist attracted a steady stream of pilgrims, many of whose afflictions were cured with prayer at this now holy site. It would have remained there in Cappadocia perhaps for all time, but by order of the Emperor Valentinian it was transferred to Constantinople. Not even royalty could assure the full protection of this relic, which vanished only to reappear a third time, an account of which can be found in the May 25th commemoration.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.