On September 5th, the Orthodox Church celebrates the parents of John the Baptist: Prophet Zacharias and Righteous Elizabeth. They are also commemorated on the Nativity of the Baptist on June 24th.
Both Elizabeth and Zacharias were of the lineage of Aaron and Elizabeth was the sister of St Anna, mother of the Theotokos. So, Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins. Zacharias served as a priest in the Temple. Both were righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless
(Lk 1:6). Unfortunately, in their youth, they were not blessed with a child. As they advanced in age, Elizabeth became barren.
However, one day as he [Zacharias] was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood… an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John (ibid, 8, 11-13).
Yet, Zacharias was doubtful of the Archangel’s message and even questioned him: How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years (ibid, 18). For this, Archangel Gabriel said to him: behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time (ibid, 20).
It was not until the Baptist was born and he wrote on a tablet that his name was to be John, that Zacharias regained his voice. Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesized. The following is his prophecy, known as Zacharias’ Song, the Benedictus:
Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham: to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (ibid, 68-79).
It is curious why Zacharias was muted for his disbelief and Mary wasn’t when the Archangel appeared to Her? How can this be, since I do not know a man (ibid, 34)? The same applies with the Apostle Thomas. He was a disciple of the Lord and even though the rest of the Apostles told him about the Resurrection, he still doubted. Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails; and put my finger into the print of the nails; and put my hand into His side, I will not believe (Jn 20:25). Yet, Jesus did not rebuke Thomas, rather, gave him the opportunity to touch Him and simply said to him: Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (ibid, 29).
The reasons for these things are known only by God of course, but one could surmise that because Zacharias was both a prophet and a priest, more was expected of him. Mary, on the other hand, was a young maiden only fifteen years old. Thomas, although an Apostle of Christ was also young and the other Apostles did have doubts too of the Resurrection. Perhaps Luke 12:48 can be a possible explanation: for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.
Tradition has it that while taking his turn at services in the Temple, Zacharias was murdered by soldiers sent by Herod. Then when Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under according to the time which he had determined from the wise men (Mt 3:16).
Elizabeth hid herself and the infant John in the hills and when the soldiers approached, one of the hills opened and concealed her and John. However, when they found Zacharias in the Temple and questioned him, he refused to relay any information. For this, he was martyred. You became the Holy Spirit's temple, living and soul-endowed, O all-glorious prophet saint. While you were communing with God within the temple you were killed unjustly, and thus fulfilled your godly path worthy of honor dying a martyr's death. And therefore, to the heavenly temple you went up and there entreat with your own blood that mercy be shown to all those who honor you
(Sticheron of Festal Vespers).
Forty days after Zacharias’ death, Elizabeth had reposed as well. John the Baptist was orphaned and dwelt in the wilderness. He was preserved and nurtured by the Lord until he began his ministry, in fulfillment of what was spoken by the Prophet Isaiah: the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight (Isaiah 40:3).’
At every Small Paraklesis to the Theotokos, the narrative of Mary visiting Elizabeth of Luke’s Gospel is read: Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:39-42).
Elizabeth was very much blessed to be the mother of the Forerunner and to receive a visit from the Theotokos and from Christ who was in Her womb. Indeed, life begins at conception.
As a priest according to the Law of God you offered up whole-burnt offerings, and they were most acceptable to Him, dressed in the vestments of the priesthood, O Zacharias. And you became a light, and you beheld mysteries; and clearly you displayed the signs and symbols of grace within yourself. And you, were assassinated by the sword in the Temple of God. O all wise Prophet of Christ the Savior, join the Forerunner in praying that our souls be saved (Festal Apolytikion).
Blessed Feast Day to All!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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