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of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by, in a charger, the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought; and he went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel; and the damsel gave it to her mother. And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb '." S. Matthew adds, that "they went and told Jesus."
It is observed by S. Jerom, that the only two persons whose celebration of their birthdays is mentioned in holy Scripture are Pharaoh and Herod ; and that on both of these occasions the festivity was marked by blood. It is certain that the Christian anniversaries of the faithful living are the days of their new birth in baptism; and of the departed, the days of their passage from this world of shadows. S. Gregory Nazianzen remarks that the Baptist had foretold his own martyrdom, in the words which he used when the Lord Jesus went to be baptized by him; "I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?" For in other places of holy Scripture, the baptism of Christ signifies martyrdom'.
1 S. Mark vi. 17-29.
2 As in S. Matt. xx. 23. compared with S. Luke xii. 50.
And as if he had said, "Thou comest to me."-Thou, my Lord, shalt come after me to hell, whither I shall shortly go, by a bloody death. This idea is also suggested by the Preface for this day in the Sacramentary of S. Gregory. "It is very worthy and just, right and salutary, that we should always and everywhere give thanks to Thee, O Holy Lord, Almighty Father, Eternal God: Who didst endow the Precursor of Thy Son with so great an honour as that, for preaching the truth, he was beheaded: and he who had baptized Christ with water was in spirit baptized by Him, and for Him was stained with his own blood. He was indeed the preacher of Truth, which is Christ, and by forbidding Herod his brother's nuptial couch was thrust into the darkness of a prison, where he enjoyed the light of Thy Divinity alone. Then he suffered the punishment of death, and descended into hell, as the precursor of his Lord and Him Whom in the world he had pointed out with his finger, he went before, by a precious death, to the place of the departed. And therefore with angels."
The martyrdom of the blessed Precursor happened probably not long before Easter in the year 32. The Greek and Latin Churches celebrate it on the 29th of August, under the name of the Decollation of S. John Baptist. This was probably the day when a translation of his remains took place, or perhaps when the church in Alexandria was consecrated in his honour, on the ruins of the temple of Serapis, in the end of the fourth century. This festival was known in the Western Church before the time of S. Gregory, and it is marked in the martyrologies of Ven.
Bede, Usuard, and others; also in several ancient Roman kalendars.
It is said that the cruelty of Herodias was not satisfied by the sight of the Baptist's head, and that, like the wife of Antony with the head of Cicero, she pierced his tongue with a bodkin. But the anger of God followed his murderers, and overtook them even in this world. We learn from holy Scripture that Herod was frequently alarmed by reports which were brought to him of the miracles of the Lord Jesus, and thought that S. John was risen from the dead. The father of Aretas made war upon him, for the insult which he had offered to his daughter, and cut off his army. And not many years after, he was persuaded by Herodias to go to Rome, to solicit the title of king from the Emperor Caligula. But he fell under the imperial displeasure, and was deprived of his office, and was banished with Herodias into Gaul, where he perished miserably at Lyons, as it is most probable. Some historians say that he wandered into Spain, and there ended his life.
The remains of the holy martyr were buried at Sebaste, or Samaria, and became renowned for miracles. Julian the Apostate, in the middle of the fourth century, gave orders that his tomb should be opened, and that his bones should be scattered in the fields. But they continued not the less fruitful in miracles, and he then commanded that they should be burnt. Some of them were rescued by the Christians, who entrusted them to the care of Philip, an abbat of Jerusalem. He, deeming himself unworthy of possessing such a treasure, sent them to S. Athanasius at Alexandria. The holy bishop laid them under the
altar of his church, and foretold that the time would come when they should be more honourably distinguished. Accordingly, when Theodosius the Great had demolished the temple of Serapis, at Alexandria, he built on its site a glorious church under the invocation of S. John Baptist, and his relics were enshrined in it with great solemnity in the year 395, or 396. Portions of them were distributed among other churches. Thus Theodoret, the great historian, and bishop of Cyprus in the fifth century, obtained some of them for his church, and relates the miraculous favours which were granted to his diocess through the intercession of this glorious saint.
His tomb at Samaria was still honoured by the faithful, and demons were cast out, and other miracles were performed at it. Such events were not unusual even at the empty tombs of the saints, as S. Gregory Nazianzen testifies. They were the work of God and not of the saint; and when the faith and devotion of the Christian people were thus displayed in the honour which they paid to the place where the blessed remains had once rested, God was pleased to reward their piety. It is thus also that the miracles which are reported to have been performed with double relics may be explained, without rejecting the whole as a fiction 1. But in every case, each fact that is alleged must stand or fall by its own evidence. The existence of miracles in all ages the Church has never doubted; she only demands the best proof, first, that such events took place, and then, that they were really supernatural.
The head of S. John was discovered at Emesa, in
See Mabillon, De cultu SS. incognit. xviii.
Syria, in the year 453. Marcellus, an abbat who lived there, was directed in a dream where to find it ; and he has related the history of its discovery. It had been carried thither, probably by some faithful disciple, after the malice of Herodias had done its worst. On the 24th of February, it was translated into the bishop's church; and, not long after, a new church was dedicated in its honour. Finally, in 760, a still larger building was erected to receive it, where numerous miracles continued to make it illustrious, even after the Sarazins were in possession of the city.
Thence it was translated to Constantinople, in the beginning of the ninth century. Wallo de Sarton, a canon of the church of Amiens, was present when the French took Constantinople in 1204, and obtained nearly the whole of this precious relic. He brought it to Amiens, where it is still preserved. Other churches in France also claim the possession of part of the remains of the holy Baptist.
Careless of thine own honour, thou to cease
Hymns from the Parisian Breviary, p. 214.