Thursday, August 27, 2009

The head of the Precious Forerunner in Amiens, France

Icon of the beheading of the Precious Forerunner (taken from:

The following is a quote from a very interesting article from the Road to Emmaus Journal about sacred Orthodox relics in France. It is an interview with a Fr. Nicholas Nikichine who has been researching many of the purported relics of Orthodox significance in France, and here presents many of his findings. Among those relics that have more historical evidence according to him is the head of St. John the Forerunner in Amiens, France. Because Saturday (August 29th) we commemorate the beheading of St. John the Baptist, I thought to include the excerpts below:
The Amiens’ Relics of St. John the Baptist

"From the 13th century, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens has enshrined a portion of the skull – the facial bones – of St. John the Baptist. This shouldn’t confuse those who know that Mt. Athos also claims to have the “head of St. John.” This naming is a pious habit, because even if you have just a part of the head or the hand, you wouldn’t say, “we have five centimeters of the skull,” you would say, “we have his head.” On Mt. Athos, they have a different part of the skull, but in Amiens we have all the bones of the face, and you can even imagine his personality behind these relics..."
"RTE: Can you tell us now about the evidence for some of the relics you’ve studied?

FR. NICHOLAS: All of the major relics that I mentioned earlier have reasonable
historical and scientific arguments from many different sources, and this varied coherence is a strong argument in itself. Also, in learning the history of these relics, we Orthodox are discovering another view of the history of the western Church and a new way of looking at these historical events.

For example, the head of St. John the Baptist was obtained during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. This was a great tragedy for the eastern Church, but now we see what has happened in Asia Minor, in Turkey, from the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 to the present. If the head had remained there, would it have been lost or destroyed when Constantinople fell to the Turks (as many relics were), or would it still be accessible for veneration? Now, this relic is in France, in a very beautiful cathedral, and it is possible for the Orthodox to venerate it in the most open manner. May 25, according to the Julian calendar, or June 7th according to the civil calendar, is the feast-day of the Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist, and on this feast in 2004 we celebrated the liturgy with this relic on the altar. This could never happen in modern Turkey, and this kind of reflection changes our estimation of the historical event of the transfer of this relic to Amiens. God has His own providence.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame d'Amiens, Amiens, France (taken from:

God allowed the transfer of these relics here, and this western society is preserving them faithfully. Certainly, France is undergoing a period of de-Christianization, but we still see daily veneration of these relics by a small number of faithful Christians. Another very well-known example from the 11th century is the transfer (“translation”) of the relics of St. Nicholas from Myra of Lycia (also now Turkey) to Bari in Italy. In the service dedicated to this event we say, “It was not useful in God’s sight that these valuable relics rested without activity in the desert of Lycia.” [***See note below] We Orthodox need to be reverent before God’s providence in this.
This continuing veneration by even a minority of French faithful is one of the spiritual arguments for their authenticity. In each case I’ve studied, I’ve found local people who believe, and scholars who have documents, historical books, and records that demonstrate the historical and scientific arguments proving the relic’s authenticity. Admittedly, these people are small in number. The great number of French Catholics not only do not know anything about their own holy places, but they aren’t very interested in them. This is not their error; they themselves are victims of the anti-Christian, anti-ecclesiastical, and anti-relic mass media. Unfortunately, every weak point of western Church history is magnified to generalize the impression of the weakness of the whole Church. The Catholics had their misadventures, and the credulity of simple people was at times turned to profit by bad clergymen, but still, when you study the history of the great relics, there is no room for these simplistic objections.

On the contrary, we have very positive and powerful arguments. We can cite the example of the head of St. John the Baptist in Amiens, which, anatomically, is a facial bone without the jaw. At the same time, a church in the diocese of Verdun reputedly had the jaw of St. John. A commission was organized to study the two relics, and in this case, the jaw in Verdun turned out to be that of another person, post 10th-century, but the conclusions of the same commission about the relics of St. John at Amiens were astonishing. The Amiens bone dates not only from the first to the third century after Christ, but this skull fragment was determined to be that of a man of Mediterranean origin, from age 30 to 45 and further, there was an ancient hole inflicted by a sharp instrument, just at the bottom of the forehead. According to Orthodox tradition, we know that after his beheading, Herodias stabbed the head with her knife as her revenge for his denunciation of her illegitimate marriage to Herod. Although this is not so important to the scientific examiners, we do have this argument from our own tradition, along with other historical and anthropological arguments for the relic’s authenticity.

A picture of the head of St. John the Forerunner in Amiens, France (taken from:
In the history of the great relics, we almost always have this scientific and spiritual correlation. For example, in the history of the Shroud of Turin, the historical documentation is not very convincing, but the most striking arguments come from the scientific side, whose findings have been continually revised over the past few years.

After the French Revolution, we had what was called a “Catholic Renaissance” in France. The crude rationalism and criticism of the revolutionaries and Protestants trying to discredit relics prompted the Catholics to search out the histories of these objects. They studied, they launched archeological investigations, and they arrived at a higher level of objective argument in favor of the authenticity of many of these relics than had been known before. Not only in France, but also in the Christian East, we still have many documents that have not been investigated because of language barriers, antiquity, and inaccessibility.

As we continue to study, we are finding even more arguments favoring authenticity, but my view is that rational investigation can never be sufficient proof. It is limited by the nature of rationalism. The main argument for us is the argument of our faith. It is not the fact that this relic, this bone, is really from St. John the Baptist that is ultimately important, but whether this relic can in some way affect our modern life, our personal destiny. We know from the history of the Church that if this relic is from St. John the Baptist, then we have a greater guarantee that our weak prayer will have more result here than in another place.

The place that we want to arrive at is to show that it is not only possible, but useful, to pray in front of relics. We have enough evidence to show that they support our prayer. God and the saints themselves give us enough arguments. However, even if I invite pilgrims to these holy places, personally, I do not dare to impose this veneration as a certainty. It is only the whole Church that can authorize this. Often, people ask, “Can you prove…,” and I have to honestly say, “No,” but the level of my rational knowledge shows me that my faith can support my belief, that I can pray in front of these relics with confidence that my faith is not forced by primitive and insubstantial arguments."
Road to Emmaus Vol. VII, No. 2 (#25))
[***Note: As St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain writes in his Synaxaristes for the feast of the Translation of the Relics of St. Nicholas (May 20th): "Διά τούτο ευδόκησεν ο Θεός να σηκωθούν από εκεί τα άγια λείψανα του μεγάλου Πατρός ημών Nικολάου, και να μεταφερθούν εις την πολυάνθρωπον πολιτείαν την ονομαζομένην Mπαρ, ήτις ευρίσκεται εις την Iταλίαν. Ένα μεν, διά να μη μείνουν τα λείψανα τοιούτου Aγίου άτιμα και άδοξα, και άλλο δε, διά να απολαύση και η Δύσις τα τούτου θαυμάσια, ήτις ακόμη δεν είχε πέση εις τας αιρέσεις και κακοδοξίας, αλλ’ ήτον Oρθόδοξος, και ενωμένη με την Aνατολικήν Eκκλησίαν." (
"Becayse of this God was pleased to take up from there the holy relics of our great Father Nicholas, and transfer them to the greatly-inhabited city called Bari, which is located in Italy. For one, so that the relics of this Saint would not remain without honor and glory, and also, that the West might partake of these wonders, as it had not yet fallen into heresies and evil teachings, but was still Orthodox, and united with the Eastern Church." (amateur translation of the above excerpt)
(and now my humble opinions...)
These and the similar sentiments mentioned above do not seem to condone at all the removal of sacred Orthodox relics (including at the sack of Constantinople) and their transfer to foreign and even heterodox people, but seem to reiterate that none of us knows the infinite mind of God, and what His inscrutable will desires. Perhaps we must also show humility, repentance and endurance of the various trials allowed by God because of our many sins. In any case, let us ultimately thank God for the countless material and spiritual blessings that we continue to receive from Him in abundance.]
Icon depicting the burial of the Precious Forerunner and the finding of his sacred head (taken from:

Hymn from the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner - At the Aposticha, Idiomel Stichera - Tone 2
Herald of repentance, John Baptist, when your head was struck off you sanctified the earth; because you made clear God’s law to the faithful and utterly destroyed lawlessness. As you stand before the throne of Christ the King of heaven, implore him to have mercy on our souls.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

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