Finding the Head of St. John the Baptist (February 24)

THE PRINCIPAL FEASTS in our liturgical year commemorate some event in the life of Christ or of the Theotokos. A second category of feasts honors the memory of saints, often on the day of their repose. A third category of feasts recalls significant events in the history of the Church, such as the discovery and exaltation of the holy Cross or the seven Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium.

In this last category the Byzantine Churches observe two feasts concerning the head of St John the Forerunner. On February 24 the “First and Second Uncovering” of his head are recalled, On May 25 the “Third Uncovering” of this relic is observed.

The Gospel account of John’s death and burial is found in Matthew 14:3-12. There we are told that John was beheaded, that his head was given by Salome to her mother, and that “Then his disciples came and took away the body and buried it, and went and told Jesus” (v. 12). What became of John’s head was not mentioned.

The Fate of John’s Body

According to a very early local tradition, John’s disciples took his body to Samaria, outside Herod’s jurisdiction, and buried it in Sebastiya, near the tomb of the Prophet Elisha.

The adornment of the holy places and the spread of monasticism in the fourth century saw the rise of interest in the Holy Land and the establishment of monasteries on the holy sites. Monastics, who revered John as a kind of proto-monk because of his life in the wilderness, settled in Sebastiya at the site of John’s tomb.

According to Rufinus of Aquileia, who lived in Jerusalem at the time, pagans, during the reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363), desecrated the tombs of both John and Elisha and burned their bones. Some of the remains were rescued by monks who brought them to their monastery in Jerusalem.

After Julian’s brief reign the shrine was restored and at least some of the relics presumably returned. In 512 St John of Maiuma in Gaza visited Sebastiya, describing what he saw: “This site, in fact, was a particular chapel of the church, enclosed within gates because it contains two urns covered in gold and silver, in front of which burn perennial lamps: one is John the Baptist’s, the other is Prophet Elisha’s.” The church was destroyed, probably by an earthquake, in the ninth century.

Palestine: the First Uncovering

Nicephorus and Symeon Metaphrastes (in accordance with Josephus) say that Herodias had John’s head buried in the fortress of Machaerus where he had been slain. Other writers say that it was interred on the tetrarch’s property in Jerusalem where it was discovered by two pilgrim-monks during the restoration of the city under Constantine the Great. For several years it was kept by local Christians as a treasured relic.

Syria: The Second Uncovering

A Syrian visiting Jerusalem acquired the head from some monks and brought it home to Emesa (Homs) where it came into the possession of another monk who buried it in his cave. A contemporary chronicle relates that in 452 St. John the Baptist appeared to Marcellus, the archimandrite of this monastery, and indicated where his head was hidden. The head was discovered and enshrined in a newly-build church which was then dedicated to St John.

This discovery was widely celebrated at the time and a feast and procession established in Constantinople on February 24 to commemorate it. Before long, the Fore-runner’s head was brought to Constantinople where it remained until the iconoclast period (730-842). The head was then secretly taken and hidden in Comana (Abkhazia today) for safekeeping.

Constantinople: The Third Uncovering

Around the year 850, with the final defeat of iconoclasm, the head of the Forerunner was solemnly retuned to Constantinople where major portions were enshrined at the Studion Monastery and the Monastery of the Forerunner. The upper portion remained in Constantinople until the disastrous sack of the city during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Crusaders took the relic to Amiens in northern France where it was enshrined in the new cathedral.

In 1793 revolutionaries sacked the cathedral and seized its valuables. They took the reliquary but the mayor of Amiens hid the actual relic until 1816 when it was returned to the cathedral where it remains.

This relic was actually the upper portion of the face. The lower jaw was thought to be in Verdun in eastern France. In 1958 the two sections were subjected to anatomical study and found to come from different skulls. The Amiens portion was more ancient that the Verdun bone which was dated to the Middle Ages. In fact, portions of the lower jaw had been sent before the Fourth Crusade to Mount Athos and other monasteries.

In 2010 skeletal remains were discovered in a case inscribed with John’s name in Greek which was found beneath the altar in the ruins of an ancient Bulgarian church. DNA and radiocarbon testing showed that the remains likely belonged to a Middle Eastern man who lived in the first century AD!

What About Damascus?

In the center of Damascus’ Ummayad Mosque stands an imposing shrine said to contain the head of the Forerunner which is venerated by both Christians and Muslims.

In AD 379 Emperor Theodosius I converted Damascus’ temple of Jupiter, the largest Roman temple in Syria, into a Christian cathedral which, in the sixth century, was dedicated to St John the Baptist. The church was rebuilt as a mosque in 706. The Arab historian, Ibn al-Faqih, reported that Zayd Ibn al-Waqid, who directed the work on the mosque, discovered the skull of “Prophet Yahia” (John the Baptist) in a nearby cave.

From the Services of these Feasts

February 24

This is the head of’ the one who pointed out the Lamb of God manifested in the flesh, and who called us to the saving ways of repentance by following the precepts of God. This is the head which reproached the iniquity of Herod, and for this was separated from its body. Remaining hidden under the ground for a long time, it has dawned like a radiant sun to say to us, “Repent! In the compunction of your hearts, become once more friends of the Lord, who grants the world great mercy!”

O Forerunner, your head, divinely preserved, has risen from the bosom of the earth as a treasury of the graces of God. Having received it, we bow down in reverence, O glorious prophet of Christ. Through you, we have been given wondrous miracles and have obtained the remission of our sins.

May 25

Your holy head, blessed Forerunner, poured out abundant grace. It was shown without his foreknowledge to the priest who was wise in God. He quickly went with faith and grace and openly brought about its sanctified return with the emperor and the divinely wise people who fervently maintain the Orthodox faith.

We celebrate the third revelation of your precious head. When it was severed, O glorious one, the Trinity crowned it for your godly zeal. The ranks of angels, the company of martyrs, the apostles of God and all the prophets rejoice in its discovery. Together with them, ever remember us, O Forerunner of the Lord.