NOVEMBER 5 is the traditional memorial of STs. ZACHARIAS AND ELIZABETH (1st CENTURY). These two were the parents of St. John the Baptist. Does anyone remember the background?
Zacharias was one of the chief priests of the great temple in Jerusalem. There were several hundred chief priests in all. They were divided up into twenty-four groups, or courses. Each course served a week at the temple twice a year. Zacharias was in the Abias course, which served the eighth and thirty-second weeks every year. From other known information, it has been determined that the Abias course was serving in the temple during the week of the Atonement, in late September to early October of our modern calendar.
Due to the difficulties in traveling, one would assume that Zacharias would have a home not too far from the temple, where he worked two weeks a year. One contestant for that place is a small village of Ain Karim, up on the hills overlooking Jerusalem. Urban sprawl has incorporated the village into Jerusalem, now. There is a church, a grotto and remnants of a chapel, indicating that people have considered this an important holy place for centuries. This was, very possibly, the country home of the couple, and the “hill country” place that Mary visited. It is only a few miles from the center of Jerusalem, where the temple stood.
Most of us know the story of how the angel announced to Zacharias that he was to have a child, and the older man scoffed at the prediction. At that point, he was struck mute and returned to his wife unable to speak. He was like that for nine months. On the day of the child’s naming, he wrote that his son’s name was to be John, in opposition to friends and relatives. And suddenly, he could speak again. Many imagine that Mary might have still been there, participating in the celebration. Seeing the miracle baby, Mary was once again impressed with the workings of the Lord. Then she left to go back to Nazareth.
The census of a provincial governor forced Mary and Joseph to go back to the area of Jerusalem. Remember, Bethlehem is only 5.5 miles from the large city, and about seven miles from the small village of Ain Karim. As we all know, Joseph and Mary presented the Baby in the Temple. Anna and Simeon probably knew Mary’s cousins, Zacharias and Elizabeth. And they had heard about the miracle of their baby. The two old people recognized the series of miracles culminating in the Child, Jesus. We can also assume that the two mothers and their miraculous babies got together several time. It is probably a sure thing that the young couple planned on taking an eight-day old child on a three day walk through the desert. Joseph probably brought his tools with him and had settled down to work a few months before taking the baby home.
One apocryphal work, called the Infancy Gospel of James, explains what happened next. When King Herod ordered the death of all boys under two years of age, John was targeted. He lived in the country outside of Jerusalem and there was mysterious talk about his birth. Elizabeth must have been sent away with the baby. Zacharias refused to tell the whereabouts of his son and was murdered in the temple by Herod’s henchmen. John grew up in the desert.
It is a fascinating story to think that this might be the way the story ends and there are a number of shrines and graves indicating that it has been long known. Seeing the broader picture makes Saints Zacharias and Elizabeth all the more human.
“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia, and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame.” Luke i. 5