The principal sources of information concerning the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist are the canonical Gospels. Of these St. Luke is the most complete, giving as he does the wonderful circumstances accompanying the birth of the Precursor and items on his ministry and death. St. Matthew's Gospel stands in close relation with that of St. Luke, as far as John's public ministry is concerned, but contains nothing in reference to his early life. From St. Mark, whose account of the Precursor's life is very meagre, no new detail can be gathered. Finally, the fourth Gospel has this special feature, that it gives the testimony of St. John after the Saviour's baptism. Besides the indications supplied by these writings, passing allusions occur in such passages as Acts 13:24; 19:1-6; but these are few and bear on the subject only indirectly. To the above should be added that Josephus relates in his Jewish Antiquities (XVIII, v, 2), but it should be remembered that he is woefully erratic in his dates, mistaken in proper names, and seems to arrange facts according to his own political views; however, his judgment of John, also what he tells us regarding the Precursor's popularity, together with a few details of minor importance, are worthy of the historian's attention. The same cannot be said of the apocryphal gospels, because the scant information they give of the Precursor is either copied from the canonical Gospels (and to these they can add no authority), or else is a mass of idle vagaries.
Zachary, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest of the course of Abia, the eighth of the twenty-four courses into which the priests were divided (1 Chronicles 24:7-19); Elizabeth, the Precursor's mother, "was of the daughters of Aaron", according to St. Luke (1:5); the same Evangelist, a few verses farther on (1:36), calls her the "cousin" (syggenis) of Mary. These two statements appear to be conflicting, for how, it will be asked, could a cousin of the Blessed Virgin be "of the daughters of Aaron"? The problem might be solved by adopting the reading given in an old Persian version, where we find "mother's sister" (metradelphe) instead of "cousin".
A somewhat analogous explanation, probably borrowed from some apocryphal writing, and perhaps correct, is given by St. Hippolytus (in Nicephor., II, iii). According to him, Mathan had three daughters: Mary, Soba, and Ann. Mary, the oldest, married a man of Bethlehem and was the mother of Salome; Soba married at Bethlehem also, but a "son of Levi", by whom she had Elizabeth; Ann wedded a Galilean (Joachim) and bore Mary, the Mother of God. Thus Salome, Elizabeth, and the Blessed Virgin were first cousins, and Elizabeth, "of the daughters of Aaron" on her father's side, was, on her mother's side, the cousin of Mary. Zachary's home is designated only in a vague manner by St. Luke: it was "a city of Juda", "in the hill-country" (1:39). Reland, advocating the unwarranted assumption that Juda might be a misspelling of the name, proposed to read in its stead Jutta (Joshua 15:55; 21:16; D.V.; Jota, Jeta), a priestly town south of Hebron. But priests did not always live in priestly towns (Mathathias's home was at Modin; Simon Machabeus's at Gaza). A tradition, which can be traced back to the time before the Crusades, points to the little town of Ain-Karim, five miles south-west of Jerusalem.
The birth of the Precursor was announced in a most striking manner. Zachary and Elizabeth, as we learn from St. Luke, "were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame; and they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren" (1:6-7). Long they had prayed that their union might be blessed with offspring; but, now that "they were both advanced in years", the reproach of barrenness bore heavily upon them. "And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord. And all the multitude of the people was praying without, at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and they wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord; and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto theLord a perfect people" (1:8-17). As Zachary was slow in believing this startling prediction, the angel, making himself known to him, announced that, in punishment of his incredulity, he should be stricken with dumbness until the promise was fulfilled. "And it came to pass, after the days of his office were accomplished, he departed to his own house. And after those days,Elizabeth his wife conceived, and hid herself five months" ( 1:23-24).
Now during the sixth month, the Annunciation had taken place, and, as Mary had heard from the angel the fact of her cousin's conceiving, she went "with haste" to congratulate her. "And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant" — filled, like the mother, with the Holy Ghost — "leaped for joy in her womb", as if to acknowledge the presence of his Lord. Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should "be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb". Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin. When "Elizabeth's full time of being delivered was come. . .she brought forth a son" (1:57); and "on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary. And his mother answering, said: Not so, but he shall be called John. And they said to her: There is none of thy kindred that is called by thisname. And they made sign to his father, how he would have him called. And demanding a writing table, he wrote, saying: John is his name. And they all wondered" ( 1:59-63). They were not aware that no better name could be applied (John, Hebrew; Jehohanan, i.e. "Jahweh hath mercy") to him who, as his father prophesied, was to "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto remission of their sins: through the bowels of the mercy of our God" (1:76-78). Moreover, all these events, to wit, a child born to an aged couple, Zachary's sudden dumbness, his equally sudden recovery of speech, his astounding utterance, might justly strike with wonderment the assembled neighbours; these could hardly help asking: "What an one, think ye, shall this child be?" (1:66).
As to the date of the birth of John the Baptist, nothing can be said with certainty. The Gospel suggests that the Precursor was born about six months before Christ; but the year of Christ's nativity has not so far been ascertained. Nor is there anything certain about the season of Christ's birth, for it is well known that the assignment of the feast of Christmas to the twenty-fifth of December is not grounded on historical evidence, but is possibly suggested by merely astronomical considerations, also, perhaps, inferred from astronomico-theological reasonings. Besides, no calculations can be based upon the time of the year when the course of Abia was serving in the Temple, since each one of the twenty-four courses of priests had two turns a year. Of John's early life St. Luke tell us only that "the child grew, and was strengthened in spirit; and was in the deserts, until the day of his manifestation to Israel" (1:80). Should we ask just when the Precursor went into the wilderness, an old tradition echoed by Paul Warnefried (Paul the Deacon), in the hymn, "Ut queant laxis", composed in honour of the saint, gives an answer hardly more definite than the statement of the Gospel: "Antra deserti teneris sub annis. . .petiit . . ." Other writers, however, thought they knew better. For instance, St. Peter of Alexandria believed St. John was taken into the desert to escape the wrath of Herod, who, if we may believe report, was impelled by fear of losing his kingdom to seek the life of the Precursor, just as he was, later on, to seek that of the new-born Saviour. It was added also that Herod on this account had Zachary put to death between the temple and the altar, because he had prophesied the coming of the Messias (Baron., "Annal. Apparat.", n. 53). These are worthless legends long since branded by St. Jerome as "apocryphorum somnia".
Passing, then, with St. Luke, over a period of some thirty years, we reach what may be considered the beginning of the public ministry of St. John (see BIBLICAL CHRONOLOGY). Up to this he had led in the desert the life of an anchorite; now he comes forth to deliver his message to the world. "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. . .the word of the Lord was made unto John, the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching" (Luke 3:1-3), clothed not in the soft garments of a courtier (Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:24), but in those "of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins"; and "his meat" — he looked as if he came neither eating nor drinking (Matthew 11:18; Luke 7:33) — "was locusts and wild honey" (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6); his whole countenance, far from suggesting the idea of a reed shaken by the wind (Matthew 11:7; Luke 7:24), manifested undaunted constancy. A few incredulous scoffers feigned to be scandalized: "He hath a devil" (Matthew 11:18). Nevertheless, "Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan" (Matthew 3:5), drawn by his strong and winning personality, went out to him; the austerity of his life added immensely to the weight of his words; for the simple folk, he was truly aprophet ( Matthew 11:9; cf. Luke 1:76, 77). "Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2), such was the burden of his teaching. Men of all conditions flocked round him.
Pharisees and Sadducees were there; the latter attracted perhaps by curiosity and scepticism, the former expecting possibly a word of praise for their multitudinous customs and practices, and all, probably, more anxious to see which of the rival sects the new prophet would commend than to seek instruction. But John laid bare their hypocrisy. Drawing his similes from the surrounding scenery, and even, after the Oriental fashion, making use of a play on words (abanimbanium), he lashed their pride with this well-deserved rebuke: "Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy ofpenance. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire" (Matthew 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9). It was clear something had to be done. The men of good will among the listeners asked: "What shall we do?" (Probably some were wealthy and, according to the custom of people in such circumstances, were clad in two tunics. - Josephus, "Antiq.", XVIII, v, 7). "And he answering, said to them: He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner" (Luke 3:11). Some were publicans; on them he enjoined not to exact more than the rate of taxes fixed by law (Luke 3:13). To the soldiers (probably Jewish police officers) he recommended not to do violence to any man, nor falsely to denounce anyone, and to be content with their pay (Luke 3:14). In other words, he cautioned them against trusting in their national privileges, he did not countenance the tenets of any sect, nor did he advocate the forsaking of one's ordinary state of life, but faithfulness and honesty in the fulfillment of one's duties, and the humble confession of one's sins.
To confirm the good dispositions of his listeners, John baptized them in the Jordan, "saying that baptism was good, not so much to free one from certain sins [cf. St. Thomas, Summa III.38.2 and 3] as to purify the body, the soul being already cleansed from its defilements by justice" (Josephus, "Antiq.", XVIII, vii). This feature of his ministry, more than anything else, attracted public attention to such an extent that he was surnamed "the Baptist" (i.e. Baptizer) even during his lifetime (by Christ, Matthew 11:11; by his own disciples, Luke 7:20; by Herod, Matthew 14:2; by Herodias, Matthew 14:3). Still his right to baptize was questioned by some (John 1:25); the Pharisees and the lawyers refused to comply with this ceremony, on the plea that baptism, as a preparation for the kingdom of God, was connected only with the Messias (Ezekiel 36:25; Zechariah 13:1, etc.), Elias, and the prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:15. John's reply was that he was Divinely "sent to baptize with water" (John 1:33); to this, later on, our Saviour bore testimony, when, in answer to the Pharisees trying to ensnare him, he implicitly declared that John's baptism was from heaven (Mark 11:30). Whilst baptizing, John, lest the people might think "that perhaps he might be the Christ" (Luke 3:15), did not fail to insist that his was only a forerunner's mission: "I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand and he will purge his floor; and will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:16, 17). Whatever John may have meant by this baptism "with fire", he, at all events, in this declaration clearly defined his relation to the One to come.
Here it will not be amiss to touch on the scene of the Precursor's ministry. The locality should be sought in that part of the Jordan valley (Luke 3:3) which is called the desert (Mark 1:4). Two places are mentioned in the Fourth Gospel in this connection: Bethania (John 1:28) and Ennon (A.V. Ænon, John 3:23). As to Bethania, the reading Bethabara, first given by Origen, should be discarded; but the Alexandrine scholar perhaps was less wrong in suggesting the other reading, Bethara, possibly a Greek form of Betharan; at any rate, the site in question must be looked for "beyond the Jordan" (John 1:28). The second place, Ennon, "near Salim" (John 3:23), the extreme northern point marked in the Madaba mosaic map, is described in Eusebius's "Onomasticon" as being eight miles south of Scythopolis (Beisan), and should be sought probably at Ed-Deir or El-Ftur, a short distance from the Jordan (Lagrange, in "Revue Biblique", IV, 1895, pp. 502-05). Moreover, a long-standing tradition, traced back to A.D. 333, associates the activity of the Precursor, particularly the Baptism of the Lord, with the neighbourhood of Deir Mar-Yuhanna (Qasr el-Yehud).
The Precursor had been preaching and baptizing for some time (just how long is not known), when Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan, to be baptized by him. Why, it might be asked, should He "who did no sin" (1 Peter 2:22) seek John's "baptism of penance for the remission of sins" (Luke 3:3)? The Fathers of the Church answer very appropriately that this was the occasion preordained by the Father when Jesus should be manifested to the world as the Son of God; then again, by submitting to it, Jesus sanctioned the baptism of John. "But John stayed him, saying: I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?" (Matthew 3:14). These words, implying, as they do, that John knew Jesus, are in seeming conflict with a later declaration of John recorded in the Fourth Gospel: "I knew him not" (John 1:33). Most interpreters take it that the Precursor had some intimation of Jesus being the Messias: they assign this as the reason why John at first refused to baptize him; but the heavenly manifestation had, a few moments later, changed this intimation into perfect knowledge. "And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfil all justice. Then he suffered him. And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him. . .And, behold, a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:15-17).
After this baptism, while Jesus was preaching through the towns of Galilee, going into Judea only occasionally for the feast days, John continued his ministry in the valley of the Jordan. It was at this time that "the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites to him, to ask him: Who are thou? And he confessed, and did not deny: and he confessed: I am not the Christ. And they asked him: What then? Art thou Elias? And he said: I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered: No. They said, therefore, unto him: Who are thou, that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself? He said: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias" (John 1:19-23). John denied he was Elias, whom the Jews were looking for (Matthew 17:10; Mark 9:10). Nor did Jesus admit it, though His words to His disciples at first sight seem to point that way; "Elias indeed shall come, and restore all things. But I say to you, that Elias is already come" (Matthew 17:11; Mark 9:11-12). St. Matthew notes "the disciples understood, that he had spoken to them of John the Baptist" (Matthew 17:13). This was equal to saying, "Elias is not to come in the flesh." But, in speaking of John before the multitude, Jesus made it plain that he called John Elias figuratively: "If you will receive it, he is Elias that is to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Matthew 11:14, 15). This had been anticipated by the angel when, announcing John's birth to Zachary, he foretold that the child would go before the Lord "in the spirit and power of Elias" (Luke 1:17). "The next day, John saw Jesus coming to him and he saith: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said: After me there cometh a man, who is preferred before me: because he was before me. . .that he may be made manifest in Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water . . . . And I knew him not; but he who sent me to baptize with water, said to me: He upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining upon him, he it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and I gave testimony, that this is the Son of God" (John 1:20-34).
Among the many listeners flocking to St. John, some, more deeply touched by his doctrine, stayed with him, thus forming, as around other famous doctors of the law, a group of disciples. These he exhorted to fast (Mark 2:18), these he taught special forms of prayer (Luke 5:33; 11:1). Their number, according to the pseudo-Clementine literature, reached thirty (Homily 2.23). Among them was Andrew of Bethsaida of Galilee (John 1:44). One day, as Jesus was standing in the distance, John, pointed Him out, repeated his previous declaration: "Behold the Lamb of God". Then Andrew, with another disciple of John, hearing this, followed Jesus (John 1:36-38). The account of the calling of Andrew and Simon differs materially from that found in St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke; yet it should be noticed that St. Luke, in particular, so narrates the meeting of the two brothers with the Saviour, as to let us infer they already knew Him. Now, on the other hand, since the Fourth Evangelist does not say that Andrew and his companions forthwith left their business to devote themselves exclusively to the Gospel or its preparation, there is clearly no absolute discordance between the narration of the first three Gospels and that of St. John.
The Precursor, after the lapse of several months, again appears on the scene, and he is still preaching and baptizing on the banks of the Jordan (John 3:23). Jesus, in the meantime, had gathered about Himself a following of disciples, and He came "into the land of Judea: and there He abode with them, and baptized" (John 3:22), — "though Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples" (John 4:2). — "There arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews [the best Greek texts have "a Jew"] concerning purification" (John 3:25), that is to say, as is suggested by the context, concerning the relative value of both baptisms. The disciples of John came to him: "Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou gavest testimony, behold he baptizeth, and all men come to him" (John 3:26-27). They undoubtedly meant that Jesus should give way to John who had recommended Him, and that, by baptizing, He was encroaching upon the rights of John. "John answered and said: A man cannot receive anything, unless it be given him from heaven. You yourselves do bear me witness, that I said, I am not Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom's voice. This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above, is above all. He that is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh. He that cometh from heaven, is above all. And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth. . ." (John 3:27-36).
The above narration recalls the fact before mentioned (John 1:28), that part of the Baptist's ministry was exercised in Perea: Ennon, another scene of his labours, was within the borders of Galilee; both Perea and Galilee made up the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. This prince, a son worthy of his father Herod the Great, had married, likely for political reasons, the daughter of Aretas, king of the Nabathaeans. But on a visit to Rome, he fell in love with his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip (son of the younger Mariamne), and induced her to come on to Galilee. When and where the Precursor met Herod, we are not told, but from the synoptic Gospels we learn that John dared to rebuke the tetrarch for his evil deeds, especially his public adultery. Herod, swayed by Herodias, did not allow the unwelcome reprover to go unpunished: he "sent and apprehended John and bound him in prison". Josephus tell us quite another story, containing perhaps also an element of truth. "As great crowds clustered around John, Herod became afraid lest the Baptist should abuse his moral authority over them to incite them to rebellion, as they would do anything at his bidding; therefore he thought it wiser, so as to prevent possible happenings, to take away the dangerous preacher. . .and he imprisoned him in the fortress of Machaerus" (Antiq., XVIII, v, 2). Whatever may have been the chief motive of the tetrarch's policy, it is certain that Herodias nourished a bitter hatred against John: "She laid snares for him: and was desirous to put him to death" (Mark 6:19). Although Herod first shared her desire, yet "he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet" (Matthew 14:5). After some time this resentment on Herod's part seems to have abated, for, according to Mark 6:19-20, he heard John willingly and did many things at his suggestion.
John, in his fetters, was attended by some of his disciples, who kept him in touch with the events of the day. He thus learned of the wonders wrought by Jesus. At this point it cannot be supposed that John's faith wavered in the least. Some of his disciples, however, would not be convinced by his words that Jesus was the Messias. Accordingly, he sent them to Jesus, bidding them say: "John the Baptist hath sent us to thee, saying: Art thou he that art to come; or look we for another? (And in that same hour, he cured many of their [the people's] diseases, and hurts, and evil spirits; and to many that were blind he gave sight.) And answering, he said to them: Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen: the blindsee, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, to the poor the gospel is preached: and blessed is he whosoever shall not be scandalized in me" (Luke 7:20-23; Matthew 11:3-6).
How this interview affected John's disciples, we do not know; but we do know the encomium it occasioned of John from the lips of Jesus: "And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak to the multitudes concerning John. What went ye out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind?" All knew full well why John was in prison, and that in his captivity he was more than ever the undaunted champion of truth and virtue. — "But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are in costly apparel, and live delicately, are in the houses of kings. But what went you out tosee? A prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: Behold, I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. For I say to you: Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" (Luke 7:24-28). And continuing, Jesus pointed out the inconsistency of the world in its opinions both of himself and his precursor: "John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and you say: He hath a devil. The Son of man is coming eating and drinking: and you say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a drinker of wine, a friend of publicans and sinners. And wisdom is justified by all her children" (Luke 7:33-35).
St. John languished probably for some time in the fortress of Machaerus; but the ire of Herodias, unlike that of Herod, never abated: she watched her chance. It came at the birthday feast which Herod, after Roman fashion, gave to the "princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. And when the daughter of the same Herodias [Josephus gives her name: Salome] had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. . .Who when she was gone out, said to her mother, what shall I ask? But she said: The head of John the Baptist. And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying: I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad. Yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her: but sending an executioner, he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish: and gave it to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother" (Mark 6:21-28). Thus was done to death the greatest "amongst them that are born of women", the prize awarded to a dancing girl, the toll exacted for an oath rashly taken and criminally kept (St. Augustine). At such an unjustifiable execution even the Jews were shocked, and they attributed to Divine vengeance the defeat Herod sustained afterwards at the hands of Aretas, his rightful father-in-law (Josephus, loc. cit.). John's disciples, hearing of his death, "came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb" (Mark 6:29), "and came and told Jesus" (Matthew 14:12).
The lasting impression made by the Precursor upon those who had come within his influence cannot be better illustrated than by mentioned the awe which seize upon Herod when he heard of the wonders wrought by Jesus who, in his mind, was not other than John the Baptist come to life (Matthew 14:1, 2, etc.). The Precursor's influence did not die with him. It was far-reaching, too, as we learn from Acts 18:25; 19:3, where we find that proselytes at Ephesus had received from Apollo and others the baptism of John. Moreover, early Christian writers speak of a sect taking its name from John and holding only to his baptism.
The date of John the Baptist's death, 29 August, assigned in the liturgical calendars can hardly be relied upon, because it is scarcely based upon trustworthy documents. His burial-place has been fixed by an old tradition at Sebaste (Samaria). But if there be any truth in Josephus's assertion, that John was put to death at Machaerus, it is hard to understand why he was buried so far from the Herodian fortress. Still, it is quite possible that, at a later date unknown to us, his sacred remains were carried to Sebaste. At any rate, about the middle of the fourth century, his tomb was there honoured, as we are informed on the testimony of Rufinus and Theodoretus. These authors add that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate (c. A.D. 362), the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics were carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria; and there, on 27 May, 395, these relics were laid in the gorgeous basilica just dedicated to the Precursor on the site of the once famous temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued, nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and St. Jerome bears witness to the miracles there wrought. Perhaps some of the relics had been brought back to Sebaste. Other portions at different times found their way to many sanctuaries of the Christian world, and long is the list of the churches claiming possession of some part of the precious treasure. What became of the head of the Precursor is difficult to determine. Nicephorus (I, ix) and Metaphrastes say Herodias had it buried in the fortress of Machaerus; others insist that it was interred in Herod's palace at Jerusalem; there it was found during the reign of Constantine, 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. In the many and discordant relations concerning this relic, unfortunately much uncertainty prevails; their discrepancies in almost every point render the problem so intricate as to baffle solution. This signal relic, in whole or in part, is claimed by several churches, among them Amiens, Nemours, St-Jean d'Angeli (France), S. Silvestro in Capite (Rome). This fact Tillemont traces to a mistaking of one St. John for another, an explanation which, in certain cases, appears to be founded on good grounds and accounts well for this otherwise puzzling multiplication of relics.
The honour paid so early and in so many places to the relics of St. John the Baptist, the zeal with which many churches have maintained at all times their ill-founded claims to some of his relics, the numberless churches, abbeys, towns, and religious families placed under his patronage, the frequency of his name among Christian people, all attest the antiquity and widespread diffusion of the devotion to the Precursor. The commemoration of his Nativity is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honour a saint. But why is the feast proper, as it were, of St. John on the day of his nativity, whereas with other saints it is the day of their death? Because it was meant that the birth of him who, unlike the rest, was "filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb", should be signalized as a day of triumph. The celebration of the Decollation of John the Baptist, on 29 August, enjoys almost the same antiquity. We find also in the oldest martyrologies mention of a feast of the Conception of the Precursor on 24 September. But the most solemn celebration in honour of this saint was always that of his Nativity, preceded until recently by a fast. Many places adopted the custom introduced by St. Sabas of having a double Office on this day, as on the day of the Nativity of the Lord. The first Office, intended to signify the time of the Law and the Prophets which lasted up to St. John (Luke 16:16), began at sunset, and was chanted without Alleluia; the second, meant to celebrate the opening of the time of grace, and gladdened by the singing of Alleluia, was held during the night. The resemblance of the feast of St. John with that of Christmas was carried farther, for another feature of the 24th of June was the celebration of three masses: the first, in the dead of night, recalled his mission of Precursor; the second, at daybreak, commemorated the baptism he conferred; and the third, at the hour of Terce, honoured his sanctity. The whole liturgy of the day, repeatedly enriched by the additions of several popes, was in suggestiveness and beauty on a part with the liturgy of Christmas. So sacred was St. John's day deemed that two rival armies, meeting face to face on 23 June, by common accord put off the battle until the morrow of the feast (Battle of Fontenay, 841). "Joy, which is the characteristic of the day, radiated from the sacred precincts. The lovely summer nights, at St. John's tide, gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away when, all the world over, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain-top, and in an instant, every town, and village, and hamlet was lighted up" (Guéranger). The custom of the "St. John's fires", whatever its origin, has, in certain regions, endured unto this day.
Here followeth the Nativity of S. John Baptist.
S. John Baptist is named in many manners. He was named a prophet; friend of the spouse; lanterne; an angel voice; Elias; baptist of the Saviour; messenger of the judge; and foregoer of the King. By prophet is signified prerogative of knowledge; in the friend of the spouse, noblesse of love; in the lantern burning, noblesse of holiness; in an angel, prerogative of virginity; in voice, nobleness of meekness; in Elias, noblesse of burning love; in baptist, prerogative of marvellous honour; in messenger, prerogative of preaching; and in foregoing, prerogative of preparation or making ready. All these virtuous things were in him.
Of S. John Baptist
The nativity of S. John Baptist was ancient, and showed by the Archangel Gabriel in this manner. It is said in the History Scholastic that David the king, willing to increase and make more the service of God, instituted twenty-four bishops or high priests, of whom one was overest and greatest, and was named prince of the priests, and he ordained that each priest should serve a week. Abias was one, and had the eighth week, of whose kindred Zacharias was descended, father of S. John Baptist. This Zacharias had to wife one of the daughters of the kindred of Aaron, whose name was Elizabeth, daughter of Esmeria, which was sister of S. Anne, mother of our Lady. Then this Elizabeth and our Lady were cousins-german, daughters of two sisters. These two, Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, were just tofore our Lord, living in all the justifications, and holding all the commandments of the law without murmur ne complaint, praising and thanking our Lord God.They had no children, for the holy woman was barren. They had great desire to have a son that might be bishop of the law by succession of lineage after Zacharias, and hereof had they in their youth prayed much to our Lord, but when it pleased not unto our Lord, they took it a worth and thanked God of all. They served the more devoutly our Lord God, for they had no charge but only to serve and entend unto him. Many there be that withdraw them from the service and love of our Lord for the love of their children. They were both old, he and his wife Elizabeth. It happed, at a solemnity that the Jews had after August, that the bishop did holy sacrifice in doing the office that appertained to him and to his week; he went for to incense, and entered into the temple, and the people abode without, making their prayers and awaiting the coming again to them of the holy bishop. Thus, as he was alone, and incensed the altar, the angel Gabriel appeared to him standing on the right side of the altar, and when the holy bishop saw him he was abashed and had great dread. The angel said to him: Be nothing afeard, Zacharias, thy prayers be heard and thou hast found grace tofore of whom our Lord. Elizabeth thy wife shall conceive and bear a son, whom thou shalt call John, of whom thou shalt have great gladness, and much people shall make great feast and joy of his nativity, for he shall be great, and of great merit tofore our Lord. He shall not drink wine ne cider, ne thing whereof he might be drunken, and in his mother's womb he shall be sanctified and fulfilled with the Holy Ghost. He shall convert many of the sons of Israel, that is to say, of the Jews, to our Lord, and shall go tofore him in the spirit and virtue of Elias the prophet for to convert father and sons, old and miscreants, to the sense of righteousness and to the service of God. When the angel had thus said to Zacharias, he answered: How may I believe and know that this is truth that thou sayest? I am now all old and ancient, and my wife old and barren. The angel answered and said: I am Gabriel, the angel and servant tofore God, which in his name am sent to speak to thee and to show to thee these things aforesaid, and because thou hast not believed me thou shalt lose thy speech, and shalt not speak till the day that this which I have said shall be accomplished, each thing in his time. The people were abiding and awaiting when Zacharias the bishop should come out, and marvelled where he tarried so long. He came out of the temple, but he might not speak, but the holy man made to them signs by which they thought well that he had seen some vision of our Lord, but more knew they not. He abode in the temple all that week, and after, went home to his house. His wife conceived and waxed great, and when she perceived it she was shamefaced and kept her in her house well five months. In the sixth month the same angel Gabriel was sent from our Lord unto the blessed Virgin Mary, newly espoused to Joseph, which shewed the conception of Jesu Christ, son of God our Lord, and the angel told to her that she should conceive of the Holy Ghost without knowledge of man. For our Lord may do all that it pleaseth him, like as it appeareth, said he, of Elizabeth thy cousin, the which, she being old of age, and barren by nature of her body, hath conceived by the pleasure of our Lord, and hath now borne about six months. When our Lady heard that S. Elizabeth her cousin was great, she went to visit and accompany her in the mountains where she dwelt, right far, hard, and evil way. When she came thither she saluted her much courteously. Our Lady was then great with the blessed Son of God, our Lord Jesu Christ, whom she had conceived when she said to the angel: Ecce ancilla domini; and then she was replenished with the deity and humanity of our Lord Jesu Christ. Then, when the salutation issued out of the body of our Lady, the greeting entered into the ears of the body of S. Elizabeth, and into her child that she had within her, which child was anoint of the blessed Holy Ghost, and, by the presence of our Lord, sanctified in the womb of his mother and replenished with grace, whereof he removed him for joy in his mother's womb, in making to our Lord reverence such as he might make not of himself, but by the grace that he had received of the Holy Ghost. Of which by the merits and grace done to the blessed child, S. Elizabeth was replenished, and anon prophesied in saying and crying with a high voice: Thou art blessed among and above all women, and blessed be the fruit of thy womb. From whence cometh to me such grace, so great that the mother of my Lord cometh to visit me? I know well that thou hast conceived the Son ot God, for as soon as thy salutation entered into mine ears, the child that is in my belly made joy and feast, and removed. Thou art well blessed and happy that thou hast given faith and believed the words of the angel which he said to thee, for all things shall be performed that he hath said to thee.
Of all these things S. Elizabeth knew nothing when our Lady came, ne yet our Lady had nothing said to her, but the Holy Ghost, by the merits of her holy child that she bare, replenished her and made her to prophesy. Then answered our Lady and made the holy psalm saying: Magnificat anima mea dominum, and all the remnant. Our Lady abode with S. Elizabeth three months or thereabouts till she was delivered and laid abed, and it is said that she did the office and service to receive S. John Baptist when he was born.
When then he was born, and the neighbours and cousins and friends knew the grace that our Lord had done to these holy folk, noble of lineage, rich of goods and of great dignity, to whom in the end of their age he had given an heir male against double or treble nature, they made great joy and feast with them. When the eighth day came, and the child should be circumcised, they called him after his father's name, Zacharias. The mother said that he should named John. and not Zacharias. and they went unto the father and said that there was none in that kindred that so was called. And then the father demanded pen and ink, and wrote: Johannes est nomen ejus, John is his name, and all they marvelled. Anon after, by the merit of S. John, his father's mouth was opened, and had again his speech, and spake, glorifying our Lord God. And these tidings of this holy child thus born, were anon spread all about the country, and each man said in his heart, and without forth one to another: What suppose ye shall be of this child? He shall be great and a man of our Lord, for he is already now with him, and the hand, the work, and the virtue of our Lord is with him. The father, holy Zacharias, replenished with the Holy Ghost, said and prophesied, and made then the holy psalm: Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel, which psalm is always sung in the end of matins.
It is said that holy Zacharias dwelled upon the mountains two miles nigh to Jerusalem, and there S. John Baptist was born, and after that S. John was circumcised, he was nourished as a child of a noble and rich man and son of great dignity, but when he had understanding and strength of body, God our Lord and the heart performed the work. He issued out of his father's house, and left riches, honours, dignities, noblesse, and all the world, and went into desert on flom Jordan. Some say he went in the age of fifteen years accomplished, and others say he departed at twelve years of age for to serve our Lord without empeshment, by which he kept silence, and bydwonge his life and his soul from idle words. This holy S. John, dwelling in desert, ware an hair made of the hair of camels. Some say that he ware the skin of a camel, in which he had made an hole to put his head in and girded it with a girdle of wool, or of leather, cut out of an hide or a beast's skin. He ate locusts, not such as we have here that we call honeysuckles; some say that it is flesh of some beasts that abound in the desert of Judea where he baptized; with wild honey he ate it. That it was flesh, the legend of S. Austin doth us to understand, which saith that S. Austin ate flesh by the example of Elias the prophet, which ate the flesh that a crow brought to him, and so S. John ate locusts, some say that there be roots so called. There served he our Lord solitarily upon the flom Jordan till that he was about twenty-nine years old. The angel of our Lord came to him and said that he should show the coming of our Lord and preach penance, for to purge them that were baptized, in accustoming the baptism of our Lord Jesu Christ. This angel said to S. John Baptist that, Jesu Christ, Saviour of the world, should come to him for to be baptized, and it should be he on whom the Holy Ghost should descend in semblance of a dove.
S. John drew him towards Bethany, upon the river or desert, not far from Jerusalem; there preached he, and taught and baptized them that would amend their life, and said to them that the Saviour and health of the world was nigh. Then came to him many, and he said to some religious men of evil life: Ye children of serpents, who hath given to you counsel to eschew the ire of our Lord? If ye will be baptized in sign of penance, do ye the works of penitence. Leave the evil, humble you, do the work of mercy; ween ye, because ye be circumcised and be the children of Abraham, that ye shall be saved? Our Lord shall make of these stones if it please him the child of Abraham which with Abraham shall be saved. S. John preached about a year tofore that our Lord came to him for to be baptized. When the Pharisees heard say that he baptized, they sent to know what he was, and they demanded if he were Christ the great prophet that was promised in their law, and he said: Nay. They demanded him if he were Elias, and come from Paradise terrestrial, he said: Nay. They demanded him if he was a prophet, he said: Nay. They demanded him whereof he meddled then to baptize, since he was neither Christ, ne Elias, ne prophet. Say to us, said they, who that thou art, that we may answer to them that have sent us hither. He answered: I am he of whom Isaiah prophesied: I am the voice of the crier in desert: Address ye and make ready the ways to God, and make ye right the paths of our Lord. They said to him: Wherefore baptizest thou then? I baptize and wash the body with water in sign of penance, but among you is he that ye know not, which was tofore me, and came after me, of whom I am not worthy to loose the latchet of his shoe. He shall give you baptism in the virtue of the Holy Ghost, in water and fire of penance.
When S. John along the flom Jordan had preached and baptized about a year, our Lord came unto him and would be baptized of him. S. John, enlumined of the Holy Ghost, knew him, and did to him reverence as to his God, his Maker, and Lord. He was so espired that human nature which was pure in him might not sustain so great knowledge, and he said right humbly: Sir, thou comest to me, which art pure and clean, to be baptized and washed of me that am foul and wasted, which ought to be baptized of thee and washed, how dare I lay on thee my hands? Our Lord said to him: Do this that I say now, for thus behoveth it to fulfil all justice and to humble and give ensample of baptism to all people. And then in humility and patience he baptized our Lord, and washed him where he had never filth, and all by holy mystery; on whom the Holy Ghost descended visibly in likeness of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard saying: Here is my well-beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Then our Lord was thirty years old from his nativity and thirteen days beginning of the thirtyfirst year. On that same day our Lord changed water into wine in Cana of Galilee. And this sufficeth for the nativity of S. John Baptist, and the residue of his life and of his death shall be said at the feast of his decollation, by the grace of God, who bringeth us to his bliss. Amen.
Here followeth the Decollation of S. John Baptist.
It is read that the decollation of S. John Baptist was established for four causes, like as it is found in the Book of Office. First, for his decollation; secondly, for the burning and gathering together of his bones; thirdly, for the invention and finding of his head; and fourthly, for the translation of his finger and dedication of the Church. And after some people this feast is named diversely, that is to say, decollation, collection, invention, and dedication. First, this feast is hallowed for his decollation which was made in this manner. For, as it is had in Historia Scholastica, Herod Antipas, son of the great Herod, went to Rome and passed by the house of Philip his brother, and began to love the wife of his brother, which was named Herodias, wife of the same Philip, his brother. After that Josephus saith, she was sister of Herod Agrippa. And when he returned, he refused and repudiated his own wife, and secretly wedded her to his wife, the which thing his wife knew well, that he had wedded his brother's wife. And this first wife of Herod was daughter of Areth, king of Damascus, and therefore she abode not the coming home of her husband, but went to her father as soon as she might. And when Herod returned, he took away the wife of Philip his brother, and wedded her, and left his own. And there moved against him therefore Herod Agrippa, and the king Areth and Philip became his enemies. And S. John said to him that he had not done well to do so, because after the law it appertained not to him to have and hold the wife of his brother living. And Herod saw that John reproved him of this thing so cruelly, as Josephus saith, because he reproved him of blame. He assembled great people for to please his wife, and did do bind and put S. John in prison, but he would not slay him for doubt of the people, which much loved John, and followed him for his predication. And Herod and Herodias, coveting occasion against S. John how they might make him die, ordained between them secretly that, when Herod should make the feast of his nativity the daughter of Herodias should demand a gift of Herod for dancing and springing at the feast tofore the principal princes of his realm, and he should swear to her by his oath that he shall grant it her. And she should ask the head of S. John, and he would give it to her for keeping of his oath, but he should feign as he were angry because of making of the oath. And it is read in the History Scholastic that he had this treachery and great fantasy in him where it is said thus: It is to be believed that Herod treated first secretly with his wife of the death of S. John. And under this occasion saith Jerome in the gloss: And therefore he sware for to find occasion to slay him, for if she had required the death of his father or mother, he had not given it to her ne consented it. And when the feast was assembled, the maid was there springing and dancing tofore them all, in such wise that it pleased much to all. And then sware the king that he would give to her whatsomever she required, though she demanded half his kingdom. And then she, warned by her mother, demanded the head of S. John Baptist. Nevertheless, Herod by evil courage feigned that he was angry because of his oath, and as Rabanus saith: That he had sworn follily, that he must needs do. But he made no sign of sorrow save in the visage, for he was joyous in his heart; he excused the felony of his oath, showing that he did it under the occasion of pity. Then the hangman came and smote off his head and delivered it to the maid, the which she laid in a platter and presented it at the dinner to her mischievous mother. And then Herod was much abashed when he saw it. And S. Austin rehearseth in a sermon that he made on the occasion of the decollation, by way of example, that there was an innocent man and a true which had lent certain money to another man which denied it him when he asked it. And the good man was moved, and constrained him by his oath to swear whether he owed him or no, and he sware that he owed him nought, and so the creditor lost that he had lent. And then he saith that, in the next day following the creditor was ravished and brought tofore the judgment, and it was asked him: Why calledst thou that man for to be believed by his oath? And he said: Because he denied my debt. And the judge said: It had been better to thee to lose thy debt than he should lose his soul by making of a false oath as he did. And then this man was taken and grievously beaten, so that when he awoke the tokens of his wounds appeared on his back, but he was pardoned and forgiven. And after this Austin saith that S. John was not beheaded on this day when the feast of his decollation is hallowed, but the year tofore, about the feast of Easter, and because of the passion of Jesu Christ and of the sacrament of our Lord it is deferred unto this day, for the less ought to give place to the more and greater. And of that, S. John Chrysostom saith: John the Baptist beheaded is become master of the school of virtues and of life, the form of holiness, the rule of justice, the mirror of virginity, the ensample of chastity, the way of penance, pardon of sin, and discipline of faith. John is greater than man, peer unto the angels, sovereign holiness of the law of the gospel, the voice of the apostles, the silence of the prophets, the lantern of the world, the foregoer of the Judge, and moyen of all the Trinity. And this so great a man was put to martyrdom, and gave his head to the adulterer, and was delivered to the springing maid.
Herod then went not away all unpunished, but he was damned into exile. For as it is contained in the History Scholastic, Herod Agrippa was a noble man but he was poor, and for his overmuch poverty he was in despair, and entered into a certain tower for to suffer death there by famine and hunger. But when Herodias, his sister, heard thereof, she prayed Herod Tetrarch that he would bring him thence and minister to him. And when he had done so they dined together, and Herod Tetrarch began to chauffe him by the wine which he had drunk, and began to reprove Herod Agrippa of the benefits that he had done to him. And that other sorrowed sore, and went to Rome and was received into the grace of Gaius the emperor, and he gave to him two lordships, that is to say of Lisania and Abilina, and crowned him, and sent him king into the Jewry. And when Herodias saw her brother have the name of a king, she prayed her husband with great weepings that he should go to Rome and buy him the name of a king. He abounded greatly in riches, and entended not to her desire, for he had liefer be idle in rest than to have honour laborious. But at the last he was overcome by her busy prayers, Baptist and went to Rome with her. And when Herod Agrippa knew it, he sent letters to the Cæsar, that Herod Antipas, or the Tetrarch, had made friendship with the king of Persia and alliance, and that he would rebel against the empire of Rome. And in token of this thing he signified to him that he had in his garrisons armours enough for to garnish with seven thousand men. And when the emperor had read these letters he was much glad, and began to speak of other things first, afar from his purpose, and among other things he demanded him if he had in his cities great abundance of armours as he heard say, and he denied it not to him. Then the emperor believed well that which Herod had sent him in writing, and was angry toward him, and sent him into exile. And because his wife was sister to Herod Agrippa, whom he much loved, he gave to her leave to return to her country, but she would go with her husband into exile, and said that he that had been in great prosperity, she should not leave him in his adversity. And then were they brought to Lyons, and there ended their lives miserably. This is in the History Scholastic.
Secondly, this feast was established and hallowed for the burning of his bones and gathering together on this day, like as some say they were burnt, and were gathered up of good christian men. And then suffered he the second martyrdom when his bones were burnt, and therefore the church halloweth this feast also as his second martyrdom, as it is read in the History Scholastic. For when his disciples had borne his body in to the city Sebasten of Palestine, they buried it between Elisæum and Abdias, and at his tomb many miracles were showed. Then Julian the apostate commanded that his bones should be burnt, and they ceased not to do their woodness then; they took them and burnt them into powder and winnowed them in the fields. And Bede saith in his Chronicles that when they had gathered his bones they drew them afar that one from that other, and by this wise he suffered the second martyrdom. But they say that know it not, that the day of his nativity his bones were gathered all about and were burnt. And whiles they were ingathering, as it is said in Scholastica Historia, there came monks from Jerusalem which covertly put them among the gatherers, and took a great part of them and bare them to Philip, bishop of Jerusalem. And he sent them afterwards to Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, and long time after Theophilus, bishop of the same city, laid them in the temple of Serapis, when he had hallowed and purged it from filth, and sacred it a church in the honour of S. John Baptist, and this is that the History Scholastic saith. But now they be worshipped devoutly at Genoa, like as Alexander the third, and Innocent the fourth, witnesseth for truth, and approve it by their privileges. And like as Herod which beheaded him was punished for his trespass, so Julian the apostate was smitten with divine vengeance of God, whose persecution is contained in the history of S. Julian tofore rehearsed after the Conversion of S. Paul. Of this Julian the apostate, of his nativity, of his empire, of his cruelty and of his death, is said plainly in Historia Tripartita.
Thirdly, this feast is hallowed for the invention of his head or finding thereof. For, as some say, his head was found on this day. And, as it is read in the History Scholastic: John was bound and imprisoned, and had his head smitten off within the castle of Arabia that is named Macheronta. And Herodias did do bear the head in to Jerusalem, and did do bury it secretly thereby whereas Herod dwelled, for she doubted that the prophet should rise again if his head were buried with the body. And as it is had in the History Scholastic: In the time of Marcian the prince, which was the year of our Lord three hundred and fifty-three, John showed his head to two monks that were come to Jerusalem. And then they went to the palace which was longing to Herod and found the head of S. John wrapped in an hair, and as I suppose, they were of the vestments that he ware in desert. And then they went with the head toward their proper places. And as they went on their way a poor man which was of the city of Emissene came and fellowshipped with them, and they delivered him the bag in which was the holy head. Then this man was warned in the night that he should go his way and flee from them with the head, and so he went with the head, and brought it into the city of Emissene. And there as long as he lived he worshipped the head in a cave, and had always good prosperity. And when he should die he told and showed it to his sister, charging her to tell it to nobody by her faith, and she kept it all her life, as he had done tofore long time. After that, long time, the blessed John Baptist made revelation of his head to S. Marcellus, monk, that dwelled in that cave, in this manner. Him seemed, in his sleeping, that many companies singing went thither, and said: Lo! here is S. John Baptist. Whom one led on the right side and another on the left side, and blessed all them that went with him. To whom when Marcellus came, he raised him up and took him by the chin, and kissed him. And Marcellus demanded him and said: My lord, from whence art thou come to us? And he said: I am come from Sebasten. And then when Marcell was awaked, he marvelled much of this vision. And the night following, as he slept, there came a man to him which awoke him, and when he was awaked he saw a right fair star which shone amidst of the cell through the house. And he arose and would have touched it, and it turned suddenly on that other side. And he began to run after it till that the star abode in the place where the head of S. John was, and there he dalf and found a pot, and the holy head therein. And a monk that would not believe that it was the head of S. John, laid his hand upon the pot, and forthwith his hand burned and cleaved so to the pot, that he could not withdraw it there from in no manner, and his fellows prayed for him. And then he drew off his hand, but it was not whole. And S. John appeared to him and said: When my head shall be set in the church, touch thou then the pot and thou shalt be whole, and so he did and received his health, and was whole as it was before. Then Marcellus showed this to Julian, bishop of the same city, and they bare it reverently into the city and showed it honourably. And from that time forth the feast of his decollation was there hallowed, for it was found the same day. And after this it was transported into the city of Constantinople. And as it is said in the History Tripartita, that Valens the emperor commended that it should be laid in a chariot for to be brought to Constantinople. And when it came to Chalcedon, the chariot would go no farther, how well that they set in more beasts to draw it, wherefore they must leave it there. But afterwards Theodosius would bring it thence, and found a noble woman set for to keep it, and he prayed her that she would suffer him to bear away the head. And she consented because that she supposed that like as Valens might not have it thence, that in like wise he should not conne have it thence. Then the emperor took it and embraced in his arms much sweetly the holy head, and laid it within his purple, and bare it in to the city of Constantinople and edified there a right fair church and set it therein. This saith the History Tripartita.
After this, in the time that king Pepin reigned, it was transported in France in Poictou, and there by his merits many dead men were raised to life. And in like wise as Herod was punished that beheaded S. John, and Julian the apostate that burnt his bones, so was Herodias which counselled her daughter to demand the head of S. John. And the maid that required it died right ungraciously and evil, and some say that Herodias was condemned in exile, but she was not, ne she died not there, but when she held the head between her hands she was much joyful, but by the will of God the head blew in her visage, and she died forthwith. This is said of some, but that which is said tofore, that she was sent in exile with Herod, and miserably ended her life, thus say saints in their chronicles and it is to be holden. And as her daughter went upon the water she was drowned anon, and it is said in another chronicle that the earth swallowed her in, all quick, and may be understood as of the Egyptians that were drowned in the Red Sea, so the earth devoured her.
Fourthly, this feast was hallowed for the translation of his finger and the dedication of his church. For his finger with which he showed our Lord, as it is said, might not be burnt. And this said finger was found of the said monks, which afterwards as it is had in Historia Scholastica, S. Thecla brought it over the mountains, and set it in the church of S. Martin, and this witnesseth Master John Beleth, saying that the said S. Thecla brought the same finger from beyond the sea into Normandy and there builded a church in the honour of S. John, which church, as it is said, was dedicated and hallowed this same day, wherefore it was stablished of our holy father the pope, that this day should be hallowed through the world. And Gobert saith that a much devout lady towards S. John was in France, which much prayed to our Lord that he should give to her some relics of the said S. John, and when she saw that it profited not in praying to God, she began to take affiance in God, and avowed that she would fast and never eat meat till she had of him some relic. And when she had fasted certain days she saw upon the table tofore her a finger of marvellous whiteness, and she received with great joy that gift of God. Then after, came thither three bishops, and each of them would have part of the finger. Then by the grace of God the finger dropped three drops of blood upon a cloth by which they knew that each of them had deserved to have a drop. And then Theodolina, queen of the Lombards, founded at Modena, beside Milan, a noble church in the honour of S. John Baptist.
And like as Paul witnesseth in the history of Lombards: And the time passed unto Constance the emperor which would have taken Italy from the Lombards, and he demanded of a holy man which had a spirit of prophecy, how he should do with the battle which he had enterprised. And that man was all night in prayer and came to the emperor and answered to him and said: The queen hath do made a church of S. John Baptist and prayeth continually for the Lombards, and therefore thou mayst not surmount them, but the time shall come that that place shall be despised, and then they shall be overcome. Which was accomplished in the time of Charlemagne.
On a time came a man of great virtue, as S. Gregory saith in his dialogue, whose name was Sanctilus and had received in his keeping a deacon that was taken of the Lombards by such a condition that if he fled he should have his head smitten off. The said Sanctilus constrained the deacon to flee, and delivered him, and when the deacon was gone they took the same Sanctilus and led him forth to be beheaded. And they chose a strong tyrant to do it, and he had no doubt to smite off his head at one stroke. And then the said Sanctilus stretched forth his neck, and the strong butcher lifted up his arm with the sword, and Sanctilus cried: S. John receive my soul, and then anon the arm of the butcher was so stiff that he could not bring it down again, ne bow it in no manner. And then that butcher made his oath that he would never after in his life smite no christian man. And the good man Sanctilus prayed for him and anon the arm came down and was all whole. Then let us pray unto this holy saint John Baptist, to be a moyen between God and us, that we may so live virtuously in this life that when we shall depart, we may come to everlasting life in heaven. Amen.