Because of his importance, John the Baptist is the only saint other than Mary whose conception (Sept 23), birth (June 4) and death (Aug 29) are commemorated. Along with those dates are the commemorations of finding of his head (Feb 24: First and Second times, and May 25 the Third); and the Synaxis on January 7, the day after the Baptism of the Lord (Theophany, January 6). We hold him in such reverence because
- - He is the last of the prophets of the Old Testament;
- - He is the first to announce the coming of the Messiah to people on earth;
- - In his preaching, he fulfilled the role of Elijah and is the forerunner of the Messiah;
- - He fearlessly preached the truth, even to the court of Herod, and was killed because of this;
- - He preached to the dead in Sheol to announce that their deliverance was at hand in Jesus. After the beheading, it is Church Tradition that St. Joanna, wife of Chuza, King Herod’s steward, retrieved the head of John and delivered it to his disciples. She herself belonged to the company of women who assisted Jesus and the apostles, as we see in Luke’s Gospel.
Among non-Christians, the Muslims honor the prophet with accounts obviously taken from the Gospel of Luke, and he is described as pure, devout, and dutiful to his parents who are correctly named Zechariah and Elizabeth. He is cited as not being rebellious towards Allah (Surah 19:7-15), and in Surah 3 hailed as the prophet who will come to confirm the word of Allah. The Mandeans/ Sabeans, who are descended from the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia, probably adopted Saint John into their religion from some of his traveling disciples. It is known that such disciples went out of Palestine without carrying the message of Jesus. In their faith, John is the only true Messiah. They teach that John was approached by an evil angel disguised as a three-year old child. Though the prophet knew who the child really was, when he asked for baptism, John gave it to him. After his death at the hand of this angel, the angel buried his body in the mud of the Jordan. Mandeans always show great reverence to images of St John, and the local Sabeans in Albuquerque who come to our church go up to the iconostas to pray before the large Russian icon of him. Oddly enough, John is also claimed as prophet by the Mormons, Baha’i, and the Unification Church!
John preached a baptism of repentance, in running (or “living”) water. He preached along the Jordan river, all the while proclaiming that the One to follow him was greater. He preached the need to repent, to follow the Law, and to prepare for the Messiah. King Herod Antipas had divorced his legitimate wife and contracted an illicit marriage with Herodias, the wife of his brother, Philip. This was in stark violation of Jewish law. John’s firm – and loud- condemnation resulted in Herod Antipas seeing the prophet as a threat. At the infamous birthday party, he yielded to the whims of his stepdaughter who performed a forbidden dance in front of him and his guests, and so he killed John. This did not earn him anything but the anger of the people and the clergy alike. After Jesus’ resurrection, Herod and Herodias were accused of being disloyal to the emperor Caligula and they were exiled to Gaul and died in obscurity. Their victim, on the other hand, remains known throughout Christianity and Islam.
John is shown dressed in camel’s hair and holding a staff, both the signs of a prophet of God. He is also shown with wings, because the gospels call him a messenger.
As for the relics of St John, the original burial place in Samaria was disturbed and parts of his body, and his head, have been scattered across the Christian world, from the cathedral of Amiens in France, to a humble Armenian Orthodox church in West Bengal, India. At least part of his head rests in a chapel in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus; this was the cathedral of the city until after the Muslim conquest (634) when Caliph Al-Walid I destroyed the church and built his mosque (704-715) but preserved the chapel and the relic. The Muslims have usually allowed Christian pilgrims to go to the chapel to pray at the shrine; the most famous of these is Pope John Paul II.
It is an old custom that on this feast day, nothing round is eaten, and food must be taken from a bowl and not a plate, in memory of the martyrdom. Also, this is traditionally a day of strict fasting, although this is lessened on a Sunday.
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