On the first day of the Afterfeast of Theophany, the Church extols Saint John the Baptist as the greatest man born of a woman. He surpasses all the ancient prophets because he baptized the Messiah, Whose coming he foretold.
In the Orthodox Church it is customary, on the day following the Great Feasts of the Lord and the Mother of God, to remember those saints who participated directly in the sacred event. So, on the day following the Theophany of the Lord, the Church honors the one who participated directly in the Baptism of Christ, placing his own hand upon the head of the Savior.
Saint John, the holy Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord, whom the Lord called the greatest of the prophets, concludes the history of the Old Testament and opens the era of the New Testament. The holy Prophet John bore witness to the Only-Begotten Son of God, incarnate in the flesh. Saint John was accounted worthy to baptize Him in the waters of the Jordan, and he was a witness of the Theophany of the Most Holy Trinity on the day of the Savior’s Baptism.
The holy Prophet John, the son of the Priest Zachariah and Righteous Elizabeth, was related to the Lord on His mother’s side. The holy Forerunner, John, was born six months before Christ. The Archangel Gabriel announced his birth in the Temple at Jerusalem, revealing to Zachariah that a son was to be born to him.
Through the prayers offered beforehand, the child was filled with the Holy Spirit. Saint John prepared himself in the wilds of the desert for his great service by a strict life, by fasting, prayer and sympathy for the fate of God’s people.
At the age of thirty, he came forth preaching repentance. He appeared on the banks of the Jordan, to prepare the people by his preaching to accept the Savior of the world. In church hymnology, Saint John is called a “bright morning star,” whose gleaming outshone the brilliance of all the other stars, announcing the coming dawn of the day of grace, illumined with the light of the spiritual Sun, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Having baptized the sinless Lamb of God, Saint John soon died a martyr’s death, beheaded by the sword on orders of King Herod at the request of his daughter Salome. (On Saint John the Baptist, see Mt.3:1-16, 11:1-19, 14:1-12; Mark 1:2-8, 6:14-29; Luke 1:5-25, 39-80, 3:1-20, 7:18-35, 9:7-9; John 1:19-34, 3:22-26).
The Transfer of the Right Hand of the holy Forerunner from Antioch to Constantinople (956) and the Miracle of Saint John the Forerunner against the Hagarenes (Moslems) at Chios:
The body of Saint John the Baptist was buried in the Samaritan city of Sebaste. The holy Evangelist Luke, who went preaching Christ in various cities and towns, came to Sebaste, where they gave him the right hand of the holy Prophet John, the very hand with which he had baptized the Savior. The Evangelist Luke took it with him to his native city of Antioch.
When the Moslems seized Antioch centuries later, a deacon named Job brought the holy hand of the Forerunner from Antioch to Chalcedon. From there, on the eve of the Theophany of the Lord, it was transferred to Constantinople (956) and kept thereafter.
In the year 1200, the Russian pilgrim Dobrynya, who later became Saint Anthony, Archbishop of Novgorod (February 10), saw the right hand of the Forerunner in the imperial palace. From the Lives of the Saints we learn that in the year 1263, during the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders, the emperor Baldwin gave one bone from the wrist of Saint John the Baptist to Ottonus de Cichon, who then gave it to a Cistercian abbey in France.
The right hand continued to be kept in Constantinople. And at the end of the fourteenth to the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, the holy relic was seen at Constantinople in the Peribleptos monastery by the Russian pilgrims Stephen of Novgorod, the deacon Ignatius, the cantor Alexander and the deacon Zosimus. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, sacred objects were gathered up at the the conqueror’s orders and kept under lock in the imperial treasury.
In the Lives of the Saints is clear testimony that in the year 1484 the right hand of the holy Forerunner was given away by the son of the Moslem sultan Bayazet to the knights of Rhodes to gain their good will, since a dangerous rival for Bayazet, his own brother, had allied himself with them. A contemporary participant, the vice-chancellor of Rhodes, Wilhelm Gaorsan Gallo, also speaks of this event. The knights of Rhodes, having established their base on the island of Malta (in the Mediterranean Sea), then transferred the sacred relic they had received to Malta.
When the Russian Tsar Paul I (1796-1801) became Grand Master of the Maltese Order in honor of the holy Prophet John, the right hand of the Baptist, part of the Life-Creating Cross and the Philermos Icon (October 12) of the Mother of God (from Mt Philermos on the island of Rhodes) were transferred in 1799 from the island of Malta to Russia [because of the Napoleonic threat], to the chapel at Gatchina (October 12). In the same year these sacred items were transferred into the church dedicated to the Icon of the Savior Not Made by Hands at the Winter Palace. A special service was composed for this Feast.
Besides the Synaxis of the honorable, glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates his memory on the following days: September 23, his Conception; June 24, his Nativity; August 29, his Beheading; February 24, the First and Second Finding of his Head; May 25, the Third Finding of his Head; October 12, the Transfer of his Right Hand from Malta to Gatchina (1799).
Saint Pachomius is commemorated on the Saturday after Theophany. He founded a monastery dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Lord near Lake Keno, and tonsured Saint Anthony of Siya (December 7) as a monk in 1508. He did not entrust Saint Anthony to one of the other monks, but he himself took him under his wing and trained him in asceticism and in the spiritual life. Saint Anthony possessed every virtue and resisted every temptation, purified his mind and soul from the passions, and freed himself from worldly attachments.
When the time came for Saint Anthony to leave the monastery and live in solitude, Saint Pachomius blessed him to follow this path saying, “May the Lord bless you, my child. May the Lord’s will be done.”
Saint Pachomius was a great ascetic and a clairvoyant Elder, a good and faithful servant who entered into the joy of his Lord in 1515.
Saint Brannock lived in the sixth century, and tutored the children of the Welsh ruler Brychan. He went with King Brychan on a pilgrimage to venerate the tombs of the Apostles. On the way home, he stopped in Brittany and remained there several years.
Eventually, the saint returned to Wales and settled at Braunton, where he built a church. His holy relics are said to rest beneath the altar of the Braunton church.
Saint Cedd was a missionary and bishop who spread the faith throughout England during the seventh century.
The eldest of four brothers, all of whom became priests, he was born in 620 AD into a noble Northumbrian family. At an early age, he began studies at the Lindisfarne Priory, where he became familiar with Irish monasticism. After pursuing further studies in Ireland, he was sent by Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne to evangelize the people of Essex. He baptized many of the locals, built several churches, and founded monasteries in Bradwell-on-Sea and East Tilbury.
After his consecration to the episcopacy as Bishop of Essex, he reinstated Saint Paul's in London as the main seat of his diocese. He remained fond of his northern homeland and made regular visits there. On one such occasion in 658, he was approached by King Aethelwald of Deira who, finding Saint Cedd to be a good and wise man, pressed him to accept a parcel of land at Lastingham in Yorkshire on which to build a monastery. Saint Cedd eventually agreed, laying the foundation stones after the parcel had been cleansed through prayer and fasting. He became the first Abbot of Lastingham and remained so while still ministering to his flock in Essex.
Saint Cedd died in Lastingham during a great plague that also claimed the life of his brother Cynebil. Eventually, he was buried under the altar of a little stone church built at Lastingham in honor of the Mother of God. His relics were later transferred to the Litchfield Cathedral, which had been built by his brother Chad.