In the Byzantine Rite St. John the Baptist is venerated above all other Saints and right below the Angels. Of course, we do not include the Blessed Mother of God, the Theotokos, who being ” more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim,” enjoys a unique veneration (hyperdulia) over and above all the Angels and Saints.
The greatness and the veneration of St. John the Baptist, who at the time of his conception the Archangel Gabriel prophesied would be ” great in the sight of the Lord” (Lk. 1 :14), is based on :
1) the direct testimony of Christ, 2) his austere ascetical life, and 3) his testimony of blood in defense of divine rights.
1. St. John the Baptist was sent by God ” in the power of Elijah” (Mt. 17:9-13) to prepare the people for the coming of the promised Messiah (Mal. 3:1). In his role as God’s messenger (in Greek-angel) he was expected to point out to the people their Redeemer, the ” Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (In. 1 :29).
He also was to baptize Jesus Christ in the Jordan River, initiating our Lord in His messianic mission (Mt. 3:13-15).
In this way the Baptist was the last of the Prophets (Mt. 11 :13), uniting by his mission the Old and New Testaments. He was also the Precursor (Forerunner) of Christ. Since he baptized Jesus, he was surnamed the Baptist. As the messenger (angel) of God he was to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven in the person of Jesus Christ. Rightly then, our Lord testified of St. John the Baptist: ” I tell you that of all the children born of women there is no one greater than John” (Lk. 7:28) .
To these words of exaltation St. Theodore Studite (d. 826) adds: ” Is there need for us to extol John the Baptist when he was so highly extolled by Christ Himself, Who is the Truth and the Eternal Word of God?” (cf. P.G. 99, 748).
2. The second reason for St. John’s early veneration was his innocent and austere life in the desert, for which he was hailed by the Fathers as an ” earthly angel in human body” (St. Sophronius, P.G. 87, 3340).
Filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Lk. 1 :15), st. John the Baptist spent all the years of his youth in the desert, preparing himself with fasting and prayer for his unique mission.
When he appeared in the Jordan region to preach penance, he was clothed in a garment of camel ‘s hair (Mt. 3:1-6), which was the traditional garb of the Prophets.
John came out from his solitude as a ” voice crying in the desert” (In. 1 :23), preaching moral reform in preparation for the advent of the Messiah:
” Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand” (Mt. 3:2). He gathered a group of disciples and, having initiated them into the ascetical life, he taught them how to pray. In this way st. John the Baptist was an inspiration to the Desert Fathers, who considered him as their Founder and true model of the eremitical life. To quote once more St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, St. John the Baptist “went into the desert to imitate not men but the angels” (cf. P.G. 87, 3352) .
The Desert Fathers, imbued with this great admiration, were the first to promote the veneration of the Baptist among the people of the East as well as the West.
3. The early veneration of St. John the Baptist was also enhanced by the repeated recovery of his relics, which were glorified by God with numerous miracles.
The popularity of the Baptist was testified to not only by all the Evangelists, but also by a contemporary Jewish historian, Joseph Flavius, who, around 90 A.D., recorded that on account of the Baptist’s popularity King Herod Antipas feared an uprising of the people. He continued:
” Herod ordered to kill this John, surnamed the Baptist, although he was a just man and had encouraged the Jewish people to a virtuous life as they kept coming to him to be baptized. He exhorted them to be just toward each other, and devoted to God” (ct. Jewish Antiquities VIII, 5). After st. John’s beheading, the disciples took his body and, according to oral tradition, they buried it in the Samaritan town of Sebaste, outside of Herod’s jurisdiction (cf. St. Jerome, PL 25, 1156). Soon the Baptist’s tomb became a great attraction for pilgrims, since God glorified His faithful servant with many miracles. This was the reason why Emperor Constantine the Great (d. 337 A.D.) ordered a magnificent basilica to be built over John’s tomb in Sebaste.
Unfortunately, in a futile effort to restore paganism, Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363) burnt the venerable relics and dispersed their ashes in the wind (cf. Theodoret, P.G. 82, 1092). Nevertheless, the grave of St. John the Baptist continued to be venerated until the final defeat of the Crusaders in the 12th century.
According to another pious tradition, Venerable Johanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza (Lk. 8:3), took the head of St. John the Baptist and buried it on the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem.
Almost 300 years later, the venerable head was found for the first time (confirmed by a miracle), and transferred to Emessa, Syria. After some time the heretics took possession of John’s head and concealed it in some monastery. In 453 A.D. it was discovered for the second time in the Arian monastery of Spelaion, near Emessa, and solemnly transferred to Constantinople.
During the iconoclast repressions (the eighth century) , the venerable relic was taken by some monks and hidden in Comana, the Province of Pontus, where St. John Chrysostom died (d. 407).
During the reign of Emperor Michael III, in 857, it was discovered for the third time and once again solemnly brought back to Constantinople, where it was deposited in the church of the imperial palace.
St. John’s head finally disappeared during the Fourth Crusade (1204 A.D.) , when it was taken by crusaders to the West. At the present time several churches in Western Europe claim its possession.
It would be hard to prove which of them is authentic.
The veneration of St. John the Baptist is very ancient and became widespread in the East and the West from the early centuries. In the Byzantine Rite every Tuesday is dedicated to his memory, with some special commemorative days:
1) On January 7th-THE SYNAXIS OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST, the most ancient feast in commemoration of him who ” baptized Our Lord in the Jordan River.”
2) On February 24th-THE FIRST AND THE SECOND FINDING OF THE VENERABLE HEAD, in commemoration of the first discovery of the precious relic in Jerusalem and then, for the second time, in Spelaion, near Emessa. It was on February 24, 457, that the venerable head of the Baptist was solemnly transferred to Constantiniple and deposited in the church of Prodromos (Precursor) for publ ic veneration.
3) On May 25th-THE THIRD FINDING OF THE VENERABLE HEAD is observed, since it was on May 25, 857, that the precious relic was solemnly translated from Comana back to Constantinople.
4) On June 24th we celebrate the feast of THE NATIVITY OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST, which was introduced at the end of the fourth century.
5) Also since the fourth centu ry we celebrate the feast of THE BEHEADING OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST on August 29th, the anniversary of the dedication of his church in Sebaste. The Byzantine Church, in commemoration of John’s beheading, prescribes a fast on that day.
6) On September 23rd-THE CONCEPTION OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST is commemorated, on account of the special intervention of God in his birth (Lk. 1 :5-25) . The Roman Church discontinued this commemoration by the end of the 15th century.
The liturgical veneration of St. John the Baptist in the Byzantine Rite received its definite form by the ninth century. There are some ancient sticheras in honor of the Baptist, perhaps from as early as the end of the fourth century. But, the main glorifiers of St. John were the famous Byzantine hymnographers of the eighth century: St. Germanus of Constantinople (d. 733), St. Andrew of Crete (d. 740), and St. John Damascene (d. 749) . Two ninth century hymnographers, the holy nun Cassia and the holy monks of Stud ion, also contributed to the Baptist’s litu rgical veneration.
The most famous ecomium in honor of St. John the Baptist belongs to St. Sophronius of Jerusalem (d. 638). which supplied the hymnographers with some lofty expressions (cf. P.G. 87, 3321f.).
Here the panegyric of St. Andrew of Crete, delivered on the feast of the Beheading (cf. P.G. 97, 1109f.), should also be mentioned as well as two eulogies of St. Theodore Studite (d. 826)-one for John’s Nativity, and another for his Beheading (cf. P.G. 99, 747f.) .
There are some earlier eulogies of St. John the Baptist, starting with that of St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) , and continuing with those of some famous orators like Antipater of Bostra (d. ca. 458) or Basil of Seleucia (d. 459) . All the Fathers were convinced that ” to praise the Baptist meant to praise Jesus, for he gave a moving witness to Our Savior!”