Thursday, 29 August 2013

Praying for Syria and Egypt as we recall
the beheading of Saint John the Baptist

An icon of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in a church in Koutouloufari in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today [29 August] is observed liturgically by most Christian traditions, including most Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches, as a day commemorating the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

Saint John the Baptist was beheaded on the orders of Herod Antipas through the vengeful request of his daughter Salome.

The story of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist is a story that places personal integrity, morality and honour in stark contrast to self-centred arrogance, vengeance, and the tyrannical abuse of power.

According to the Synoptic Gospels, Herod, who was Tetrarch of Judea, had imprisoned Saint John the Baptist after he reproved Herod for divorcing his wife and unlawfully marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip.

On Herod’s birthday, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, danced before him and his guests. The drunken Herod was so pleased that he promised her anything she desired, including half his kingdom. When her mother prompted Salome to ask for the head of Saint John the Baptist on a platter, he was executed in prison. The disciples took his body and buried it, but the Gospel accounts say nothing about what happened to his head (Matthew 14: 1-12; Mark 6: 14-29; see Luke 9: 7-9).

Today’s liturgical commemoration is almost as old as the commemoration of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist on 24 June. In some Orthodox cultures, today is a day of strict fasting.

A traditional icon showing scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist

According to some Orthodox traditions, Saint John’s disciples buried his body at Sebaste, near present-day Nablus on the West Bank, but Herodias took his head and buried it in a dung heap. Later, Saint Joanna, the wife of one of Herod’s stewards, secretly recovered the head and buried it on the Mount of Olives, where it remained hidden for centuries. In the fourth century, a monk named Innocent is said to have found the buried head, but hid it again.

Over a century later, in the year 452, when Constantine the Great was Emperor, two monks in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage claimed to have found the head once again, but it fell into the hands of an Arian monk, Eustathius. Eventually, Archimandrite Marcellus brought the head to Emesa in Phoenicia.

Yet other traditions say Herodias had the head buried in Herod’s fortress at Machaerus or in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. It was found during the reign of Constantine and secretly taken to Emesa, where it was hidden until it was found once again in 453.

From Emesa, the head was brought to Constantinople. Although it was moved to Cappadocia in the early ninth century during the iconoclastic persecution, it was returned later to Constantinople.

According to another tradition, the body of Saint John the Baptist remained in Sebaste. However, his shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate ca 362. A portion of the rescued relics was brought first to Jerusalem and then to Alexandria in 395. Today, the former tomb in Nablus is at the Nabi Yahya Mosque or Saint John the Baptist Mosque.

Today, several places claim to have the severed head of Saint John the Baptist, including the Church of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, Amiens Cathedral in France, Antioch in Turkey, the Romanian skete of Saint John Prodromos (Saint John the Baptist) on Mount Athos in Greece, and the former Basilica of Saint John the Baptist in Damascus. Because of the traditions relating the head to the Syrian capital, many Muslims believe that Christ’s second coming will take place in Damascus.

Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun, shows me the relics in the crypt of Saint John the Baptist below the northern wall of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Egypt, when I visited the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great at Wadi el-Natrun, about 100 km north-west of Cairo, in the Desert of Sceits, Father Irenaeus, a monk in the monastery, showed me the relics of Saint John the Baptist in the crypt of the main church in the monastery.

The Church of Saint Macarius was restored in recent decades at the request of the late Pope Shenouda III. We were told that during the restoration of the church, the monks unearthed the crypt of Saint John the Baptist and the crypt of the Prophet Elisha below the northern wall . The relics were then gathered into a special reliquary and placed before the sanctuary of Saint John the Baptist in the Church of Saint Macarius.

The monastery has spiritual, academic and fraternal links with several monasteries outside Egypt, including Chevetogne in Belgium, Solesmes Abbey and the Monastery of the Transfiguration in France, Deir el-Harf in Lebanon and the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God at the Convent of the Incarnation at Fairacres in Oxford.

Each day, the monastery receives large numbers of Egyptian and foreign visitors, sometimes as many as 1,000 people a day. The monks give special priority to priests, full-time lay workers and Sunday school teachers as visitors, and during the summer holidays, the monastery offers many young people opportunities to spend a few days on retreat, with spiritual direction and guidance.

The monastery is playing a significant role in the spiritual awakening of the Coptic Church. “We receive all our visitors, no matter what their religious conviction, with joy, warmth and graciousness, not out of a mistaken optimism, but in genuine and sincere love for each person,” says the monastery website.

In his book, Church and State, one of the monks, Father Matta el-Meskeen, declares that politics should be entirely separated from religion. “Give therefore to emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22: 21). In other writings, such as Sectarianism and Extremism, Father Matta warns against the common tendency of minorities to be wrapped up in themselves and to despise others.

The monks say they live out fully the unity of the Church in spirit and in truth, “in anticipation of its visible attainment ecclesiastically. Through our genuine openness of heart and spirit to all men, no matter what their confession, it has become possible for us to see ourselves, or rather Christ, in others. For us, Christian unity is to live together in Christ by love. Then divisions collapse and differences disappear, and there is only the One Christ who gathers us all into His holy Person.”

And they add: “It is our hope that the desert of Scetis will become once more the birth place of good will, reconciliation and unity between all the peoples on earth in Christ Jesus.”

These monks are an example to us all. Meanwhile, those places associated with Saint John the Baptist in the Middle East, including Syria, Turkey, the West Bank and Egypt must be in our prayers this morning as we pray that integrity, morality and honour should triumph over arrogance, vengeance and the tyrannical abuse of power.

With Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun in the Western Desert in Egypt


Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Psalm 11; Hebrews 11: 32 to 12: 2; Matthew 14: 1-12.


Almighty God,
who called your servant John the Baptist
to be the forerunner of your Son in birth and death:
strengthen us by your grace
that, as he suffered for the truth,
so we may boldly resist corruption and vice
and receive with him the unfading crown of glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Merciful Lord,
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
grant that we who in this sacrament have known
your forgiveness and your life-giving love
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The door into the chapel at the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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