Friday, June 24, 2011

Hail, Saintly Herald of Our Lord

The Relics of St. John the Baptist

Today we celebrate the feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist.  According to Our Lord Himself, among those born of women there is no one greater than St. John the Baptist.   St. John the Baptist is not only a martyr, but also a close, saintly relative of Jesus who was not, as Our Lady was, assumed bodily into heaven.  Consequently, first class relics of St. John the Baptist have always been particularly prized, a first class relic being the physical remains of a saint.  We moderns tend to smirk at the allure which relics held for our forebears in faith, overlooking the extent to which we ourselves are fascinated by less worthy relics.  I read recently of a woman who carefully preserved jelly beans trod upon by the Beatles back in early sixties.   So, before loftily dismissing the veneration of saintly relics in the past, let us consider the non-saintly relics amongst our own bric-a-brac. 

From wikipedia, here is a short history of the relics of St. John the Baptist:

The burial-place of John the Baptist was at Sebaste in Samaria, and mention is made of his relics being honored there around the middle of the 4th century. The historians Rufinus and Theodoretus record that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate around 362, the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics were carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, where on May 27, 395, they were laid in the basilica that was newly dedicated to the Forerunner on the former site of the temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued, nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and St. Jerome bears witness to miracles being worked there.

What became of the head of John the Baptist is difficult to determine. Nicephorus and Symeon Metaphrastes say that Herodias had it buried in the fortress of Machaerus (in accordance with Josephus). Other writers say that it was interred in Herod's palace at Jerusalem; there it was found during the reign of Constantine I, and thence secretly taken to Emesa, in Phoenicia, where it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453. However, the decapitation cloth of St. John is kept at the Aachen Cathedral. The Coptic Christian Orthodox Church also claim to hold the relics of St. John the Baptist. These are to be found in a monastery in Lower Egypt between Cairo and Alexandria. It is possible, with permission from the monks, to see the original tomb where the remains were found. An obscure and surprising claim relates to the town of Halifax in West Yorkshire, United Kingdom, where the Baptist's head appears on the official coat-of-arms. A legend first recorded in the late 16th century and reported in William Camden's Britannia accounts for the town's place-name, as 'halig' (holy) and 'fax' (face), by stating that the first religious settlers of the district brought the 'face' of John the Baptist with them.

Items said to be St. John's skull are located at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in Scetes, Egypt, at Gandzasar Monastery's Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, in Nagorno Karabakh, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. (Extant)., and San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, and the Residenz Museum in Munich, Germany, (official residence of the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria from 1385 to 1918). Further heads, no longer available, were once held by the Knights Templar, Amiens Cathedral in France (brought home by Wallon de Sarton from the Fourth Crusade in Constantinople), Antioch in Turkey (fate uncertain), and the parish church at Tenterden in Kent, where it was preserved up until the Reformation.

The saint's right hand, with which he baptised Jesus, is in the Serbian Orthodox Cetinje monastery in Montenegro, and also in the Romanian skete of the Forerunner on Mount Athos.  A further hand - it is unclear which - is preserved in the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. John at Chinsurah, West Bengal, where each year on "Chinsurah Day" in January it blesses the Armenians of Calcutta.  An arm, with or without a hand, is at the Topkapi Palace.

RELATED:  Catholic Herald conducts poll - "Does it matter if relics are fake?"

RELATED:  St. John the Baptist and do re mi fa sol la:

"It is also a well-known fact that the Vesper hymn of St. John provided the names of the notes for the first diatonic scale, noted by Guido of Arezzo in the 11th century. The opening stanza reads

Ut queant laxis / resonare fibris
Mira gestorum / famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti / labii reatum,
   Sancte Ioannes.
The six notes of the original scale are named for the syllables at the beginning of each half-line, each such syllable occurring on a higher note than the one preceding. The names of the notes were thus originally, “ut – re – mi – fa – sol – la”; the scale was later increased to seven notes with the addition of “si”, from “Sancte Ioannes”. In Italian, “ut” was changed to “do” to make it easier to pronounce and sing, since words do not end in hard consonants in Italian, and “si” was changed to “ti” in the English-speaking word in the 19th century."
More here.

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