January Saints: John the Baptist (ca. 6BC – 30AD)

There are several St.  Johns in the Greek Orthodox Saints’ calendar but the most famous one is arguably John the Baptist. The Greeks usually call him Prodromos, the Forerunner, as he was the one to prepare the way and announce the coming of Christ. It is no coincidence that his name day is celebrated the day after Theofania, the Blessing of the Waters, where thousands of Greeks jump into the freezing sea to honour the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist himself!

You have probably heard the story about John the Baptist a million times but just in case, here is a short recap:

John was the son of the priest Zachariah and Elizabeth, a cousin of the Virgin Mary. They were an elderly, child-less couple who had given up all hopes of ever having children of their own. One day, the archangel Gabriel announced to Zachariah that they were going to have a son, but as the latter did not believe that was possible at Elizabeth’s age he openly doubted the angel. As a punishment he was struck dumb and got his speech back only after John had been born.

John the Baptist dedicated his life to God and preached the imminent arrival of Christ on the banks of the river Jordan. In icons, he is often depicted with wings, which plays on the Greek word Aggelos, angel, which really means messenger (John was, after all, a prophet). King Herod was wary of John the Baptist and saw him as somewhat of a rebel and had him arrested. At a party Herod’s niece, the beautiful Salome, asked Herod for the head of John as a prize for dancing and thus, poor John was beheaded. In icons this is illustrated by John standing next to or carrying his own head on a platter. There is often an axe on the ground or leaning against the very tree it was made from in the background.

Because of his decapitation, John the Baptist has become the saint that cures you from illnesses of the head: headaches, migraines, epilepsy, mental illness etc., as well as fevers. An old tradition also has it that he comes to the deathbeds of those who have not heard the Christian gospels and so gives them one last chance to be saved. He is also considered the patron saint of Freemasons.

The name John is IoAnnis in Greek and in everyday language it is shortened to Yannis for men and Ioanna for women. Men can also be called Prodromos after him, a name quite common on Skopelos. John the Baptist is a very important saint to the Greek Orthodox and his icon can always be found to the right of Christ on the iconostasis, the screen of icons, in churches. He is honoured on several days of the year, but the 7th of January is the “big” one, where everyone named after him will celebrate. This day is called Synaxis of John the Baptist, which basically means “the gathering of saints and angels”, because of what had happened the day before.

Some of the other days are:

June 24: his birth

August 29: his beheading

September 23: his conception

On Skiathos, there is a lovely little church dedicated to John the Baptist not far from the Kounistra Monastery. It is called O Agios IoAnnis O KryfOs, St. John the Hidden, because it is hidden away in the forest. Alexandros Papadiamantis tells us in his short story The Murderess, that this was a place you could go to pray if you had done something so terrible or had such bad thoughts that you could not go to your normal church, thus giving the name The Hidden a second meaning.

Another church is situated not far from the Old Town, or Kastro. This one is dedicated to the Beheading and has several grim icons of the moment. This is also where the old cemetery used to be. It was at this church some locals were struck and killed by lightning in the 1920’s, while celebrating John on August 29. Local lore has it that they were being disrespectful of the saint and so got their punishment.

Nowadays, many people go to visit the church of John the Baptist on Skopelos, as this is where the wedding scene in the film Mamma Mia was shot. Legend has it that the Baptist himself had chosen the spot for the church on top of a big rock in the sea; by putting his icon there, the locals were convinced this is where he wanted it to be housed.

For more about John the Baptist and other saints, please visit our website:

http://www.skiathosbooks.com

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