Christian: Recalling when John the Baptist lost his head

MONDAY, AUGUST 29: Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans recall Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, St. John the Baptist, on this annual feast day. Those churches account for more than a billion men and women worldwide, and the feast itself is one of the oldest traditions in the 2,000-year history of Christianity. However, this is one of those dates in the life of the church that is not widely known or observed by the faithful. (If you check local church listings in your part of the world for special liturgies, you will find some.)

John the Baptist vocabulary: In some branches of Christianity, the feast has been called the Beheading of the Forerunner or the Decollation of St. John the Baptist. If you’re a fan of murder mysteries, the latter is a helpful euphemism to remember for referring to this particular kind of violence. The root of “decollation” is the Latin “collum,” referring in this case to the neck or collar area, so the word simply says in a polite way: beheading. Of course, the point of this ancient feast is not gore, but a celebration of the supreme sacrifice of John in proclaiming the coming kingdom of God and paving the way for his cousin Jesus’ ministry.

Religious scholars and historians ask: Where’s John now? The popular children’s series Where’s Waldo? harks back to more than 1,000 years of wondering where John’s body—specifically the holy relics of John’s head and other bones—wound up in the ancient world. It’s hard to find a more tangled mystery than the destination of St. John the Baptists’ remains. Wikipedia has a fascinating overview of the various claims and counter-claims concerning his relics. Claims are made from Jerusalem to Syria to Turkey—and far beyond—about miracles related to pieces of John’s remains.

Yahya ibn Zakariya, peace be upon him: John the Baptist is one of the major bridge figures between Christianity and Islam. In the 19th sura of the Quran, the story of John’s birth to Zachariah and Elizabeth is retold and celebrated as a sign of God. He is regarded as a holy model of the relationship between a son and his parents—and a model of faithful self denial in adulthood.

Catholic Bishop Gumbleton on John the Baptist: In his popular column, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton describes the importance of John the Baptist in Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus courageously preached that peace and justice were marks of God’s kingdom—and he clearly understood the cost of such a public ministry after John’s martyrdom at the hands of Roman rulers, Gumbleton writes in his column.

The Horror Story that Won’t Die: The story of Salome, a sexy dancer in the court of the regional Roman ruler Herod, continues to circle the globe. John the Baptist was arrested because of the growing strength of his prophetic movement. Then, according to ancient accounts, complex court intrigue led Salome to demand the head of John from Herod. The head was presented on a platter, an image immortalized by the controversial Catholic painter Caravaggio 400 years ago (see the painting at right). On September 21 on the PBS network, Americans can tune in to the New York Philharmonic Gala, a program that will include selections from Richard Wagner’s rendition of the Salome story.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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