On Friday, June 24, 2011, on the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Bishop Thomas, the bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic, made an episcopal visit to the faithful at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Lewistown, Maryland. St. John the Baptist Mission is the only Western Rite church in Maryland, and is one of only four Antiochian Orthodox churches in the United States that has taken the Forerunner of Christ for their name and patron saint. Bishop Thomas’ visitation coincided with the mission’s celebration of their annual patronal feast.
The celebration began with evening Vespers, followed by the tonsuring of Reader Jude (Marty) Hobbs by Bishop Thomas. The fact that Marty keeps a shaved head gave occasion for a bit of levity as Bishop Thomas took up the scissors, looked at Marty’s head, and proclaimed, “We’ll see what we can do here!” A bit of Marty’s goatee was sufficient for the ritual tonsuring, and with the prayers of consecration said by His Grace, the newly tonsured Reader Jude chanted his first epistle reading from Philippians 2 before Bishop Thomas and the people of St. John the Baptist.The mission’s priest and pastor, Father James Hamrick, served Divine Liturgy before a large gathering. Besides the people of Saint John the Baptist, there was representation of the faithful from neighboring churches including St. James the Apostle Mission in Westminster, Maryland; St. Patrick Mission in Warrenton, Virginia; and St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church in Washington, DC. Visiting clergy in attendance included Fr. Nicholas Alford (St. Gregory the Great), Fr. Patrick Cardine (St. Patrick), Fr. Raphael Barberg (St. James the Apostle), and Dn. Steven Shaheen (St. George, New Kensington, PA).
Following Divine Liturgy, the people recessed outside at the front of the church where the newly tonsured Reader Jude Hobbs lit the ceremonial St. John’s Fire. Fr. James explained to the people that the mission’s annual tradition of lighting a St. John’s Fire had its roots in antiquity. Similar to the Paschal Fire in the springtime, the Church baptized the ancient pagan custom of the northern Europeans who would light bonfires at their Midsummer celebration (summer solstice). However, instead of honoring the sun god, the Church lit fires in Europe at the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist to honor the Forerunner’s birth. St. John the Baptist was born six months before Christ our Lord and was sometimes called the “Sun of Justice.”
With the lighting of the St. John’s Fire, Fr. Nicholas Alford led the people in the Litany of St. John the Baptist, followed by the blessing of the St. John’s Fire by Father James (a video of it may be viewed on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/wa... ). The service concluded with the people venerating the relics of St. John the Baptist and his icon, assisted by Fr. Patrick Cardine and Fr. Raphael Barberg. Fr. James then took the occasion to thank Bishop Thomas, to introduce the visiting clergy, and to express his appreciation of the fact that with Fr. Raphael Barberg’s appointment as the new priest in Westminster, he would have another priest in the area who was a retired police officer (Fr. James recently retired as the Assistant Chief of Police from the University of Maryland Police Department in College Park; and Fr. Raphael is a retired Lieutenant from the Buffalo Police Department in New York).
The people then reconvened at a local Methodist church where they enjoyed a seafood feast and an opportunity to meet with Bishop Thomas and the other visiting people and clergy. The people of St. John the Baptist had been involved with the people of St. James Mission in Westminster over the course of the previous six months during their period of transition. So the opportunity for the people of the two missions to come together just two days prior to the installation of St. James’ new priest, Fr. Raphael Barberg, gave an added reason for a festive and jubilant celebration.