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  On January 7, the Orthodox Church [new claendar] celebrates the Synaxis of John the Baptist and the translation of his right hand from Antioch to Constantinople. According to the Church’ tradition, John the Forerunner of our Lord, was buried in the city of Sebaste, Samaria. Saint Luke the Evangelist wanting to move St John’s whole body to Antioch, was able to obtain and translate only his right hand.

  Historians Theodoret and Rufinus mention that the tomb of St. John the Baptist was desecrated in 362, during the Emperor Julian the Apostate reign, and a part of St. John relics burned. What remained intact from Saint’ body was taken to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria, and on May 27, 395 was placed in the church that bears saint John’ name.

  The chronicle of John Skylitzes (a Byzantine historian of the eleventh century) states that the right hand of St. John the Baptist was moved from Antioch to Constantinople in 956 by Emperor Constantine the VII or Porphyrogenites (913-959) to be placed in one of the chapels of the Grand Palais, that is in the church of the Most Holy Theotokos of Peribleptos.

Lord' Epiphany

  At the end of the twelve century, the Russian archbishop Anthony of Novgorod who went on a pilgrimage to Constantinople, mentions in his writings among other treasures of this church, the right hand of St. John the Baptist.

 According to Du Cange in 1263, Othon of Ciconia attested the presence of a small piece from St. John’ right hand, in Citeaux Abbey, France. In 1261, Othon aceepted the refuge of the Latin Emperor of Constantinople Baldwin the II and in exchange for a gift, the emperor gave Othon this piece of relic of St John.

 In a testimony of the Spanish ambassador Clavijo dated 1404, it is mentioned that the holy hand was still in the church of the Theotokos – Peribleptos in Constantinople. After the fall of Constantinople (in 1453), the hand of St. John the Baptist along with other Church’ treasures were seized by the Turks and kept in the imperial treasury.

  In some Turkish fiscal archives from 1484 kept in Topkapi, it is noted that Sultan Bayezid the II (1481-1512) sent the hand of St. John to Hospitallers from Rhodes, (who occupied this island during the first quarter of the fourteenth century), in order to earn their favor. Later, the Hospitallers took the relics to the island of Malta, where they established their qurter.

  In 1799, St. John’ hand was translated from Malta to Gatchina (Russia) when the Russian Emperor Paul the I (1796-1801) became the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, but also due to threats of war from Napoleon. This event is also mentioned in the Russian sinaxaryum, from October 12. From 1799, the relics stayed in the possetion of the Russian tsars, but in 1917, they were taken out of the country by Maria Feodorovna, fearing the anger of the Bolsheviks. Since 1917, the right hand of John the Baptist was preserved in Germany, then in Yugoslavia and presently is found in the Monastery Church of Cetinje from Montenegro.

Monastery of Cetinje
In June 2006, during a two weeks period, the right hand of St. John the Baptist returned in procesion to Russia. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims venerated the holy relics in the cathedral dedicated to our Savior from Moscow. After Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, the holy relics were brought for veneration to Yekaterinburg, Rostov, Minsk, Saint-Petersburg and Kiev(Ukraine). On July 16, the holy relics of St. John returned to Montenegro.

Cetinje= St John right hand

  However, it seems that part of the right hand of St. John offered by Sultan Baizid the II to the Order of Hospitallers, returned to the Ottoman Turks in the late sixteenth century. This piece is currently preserved in Topkapi [Palace] museum, in Istanbul.

Topkapi Museum - Istambul

  It is surprising to find Christian sacred relics in the possession of a sultan… Pehaps because in the Qur’an, St. John the Baptist is called Yahya, the profet that precedes Isa (Jesus).

The hand of St John the Baptist - Topkapi Museum

  The holy relics, as they are preserved today, are placed in a medieval metal ouches [case], modeled in the shape of an arm with realistic artistical accents. This ouches is undoubtedly the work of a Venetian workshop, as the case is inscripted with two silver marks: one representing the Venetian lion and the 2nd mark is a Maltese Cross – sixteenth century style, the era when the Order of Hospitallers became the Knights of Malta.

  The finger gesture is a sign of blessing – commonly found in the Byzantine art, but also a gesture by which Saint John points at Christ as “the Lamb of God”. The ouche bares three inscriptions: one around the wrist noting: “the hand of John the Baptist”, a second on the index finger, referring to the sermon of St. John depicting Christ as the Messiah: “Behold, the Lamb of God”, and a third inscription located on the elbow which mentions the name of a certain monk: “A prayer of God’s servant Daniel.”

  Small pieces from the right hand of St. John are also found in the Monastery of Dionysiou from Mount Athos,

 Dionisiu - Athos

and the Coptic Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great from Sketis, Egypt.


Winter holidays in the midst of Arab Spring

  “Christ is born, glorify Him… sing unto the Lord all the earth and joyfully praise Him all ye nations for He is glorified!”

It’s the liturgical song that expresses the joy of the Church that our Christ Savior was born. The joy that unites heaven and earth, angels and men. A joy that we all felt and we mostly lived it liturgically, ecclesiastically, Eucharistically – in the great mystery of the Divine Liturgy. We could say that is something normal and that is how our ancestors lived. In our nation, yes, it’s normal. But unfortunately not all Christians had the holy peace that we’ve all enjoyed at Christmas.

  Every time the Gospel is read, on the Sunday after the Nativity of our Lord, we are presented with a family [the Holy family of the Virgin Mary and righteous Joseph] in the Middle East, fleeing [with the baby Jesus] from the human hatred [of Herod]. From infancy, the Holy Child experienced suffering. From the cradle, He began to bear His Cross. But He wasn’t alone… Immediately it followed the 14,000 innocents, the first martyrs of the Church – the infants. And the series of this genocide continues until today…

  This Christmas feast, in the home’ land of the Christ Child, in the Middle East, Christians celebrated it – with tears. Tears for the loved ones who have died, tears for the many which cannot be found, tears for their churches and their cemeteries, tears that Christ was born in a world too cruel.

  Tears began to flow starting with the eve of the great feast, while in our country, children brought the good news. On December 24, 2013 during Vespers in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, a church was mined. 26 Christians that were praying in the church have died and 38 were injured. At the same time, in the Athorien plaza of the same city, two bombs targeted a cafe owned by a Christian family. 11 more dead and 21 wounded were added to those murdered in the church.

  In Egypt, a little after midnight on December 26, during the Divine Liturgy, a bomb exploded in the nave of the Coptic church: Abba Anthony. There, 23 martyrs were counted and about a hundred were injured. According to the eyewitnesses, “there were body parts [of those martyred] spread everywhere, on the streets, outside the church and even in the Holy Altar. The dead were placed before the altar, covered with newspapers and the vigil continued… ” The eyewitnesses also attested that “the security forces withdrew an hour before the bombing of the church.”

  These may seem to us like events from a parallel world. But in fact they were acts of ordinary Muslims, trained by a series of fanatical clerics. And if they were attributed to the rebels, we must say that there were also government orders. In most Arab countries, the Muslim government leaders have passed law bills that prohibit Christian liturgical worship during the period of December 6, 2013 to January 7, 2014.


  In the Islamic Republic of Iran, a government decision was instituted that ‘recommends’: “the local Christian churches to reduce the pomp for the celebrations of Christmas and New Year, in order not to disturb the days of mourning and self-flagellation of the Shiite Muslims.”

  In Iraq, some teachers from the elementary schools in Baghdad and Mosul have scheduled final exams on December 25, forcing Christian students to attend school on the day of the Nativity. Some Muslim clerics in their sermons insisted that to tell someone Merry Christmas is worse than fornication . . . and even worse than murder!

  At home, we enjoyed the caroling, the lights and the Christmas tree, we attended church and we extended this joy into our family homes. With or without the snow we felt it as a magic winter. We lived the holidays, as we desired.

  In the Middle East however, the winter continued with the Arab Spring, which brought tears and pain. But Christ was also born for them. Perhaps more than He was for us! That He may bring comfort to their souls. There, were the carols were absent, the holy angels sang instead: “Christ is born, glorify Him … sing the Lord all ye nations and joyfully praise Him, for He is glorified!”


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January 2014