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The Church of the Visitation

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Secrets of the Past at the Church of the Visitation

Location – Ein Karem

Map Coordinates - 31.764605, 35.157762

Merged Gospels story - 6

One of the reasons that we know that the Gospels are historically accurate is because they are geographically accurate. After all, Luke calls this land the hill country, and as you can tell by looking around it is very hilly. We have no proof that Luke ever visited this area, so how did he know that it was hilly? According to Luke, his sources were eyewitnesses – most likely Jews, and their description of the topography of this place turned out to be very accurate. These kinds of details give us the confidence that our four Gospels are reliable by every standard of measurement.

Ein Karem is about five miles west of the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s famous because this is where John the Baptist was born. This is also the place where the Virgin Mary delivered her famous oration, called The Magnificat.

Mary Greets Elizabeth at her home in Ein Karem.

The Biblical Story.

Elizabeth and Zacharias were the parents of John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of Luke, Zacharias was a priest in the Jewish Temple. And the angel Gabriel met him by the altar of incense in the Temple Sanctuary. Gabriel told him that he would be the father of John the Baptist. But because Zacharias didn’t immediately believe the angel, his ability to speak was taken away, and could not utter a word until the time that John was born.

Both Zacharias and Elizabeth were old and beyond their child-bearing years. But just like it was when Anna and Joachim gave birth to Mary, so now God has allowed this aged couple to become parents themselves.

The Gospel of Luke is not the only place in history where we read about Zacharias. According to the Protoevangelium of James, Zacharias was the one who officiated at a ceremony where Joseph was chosen to be the husband of Mary.

According to Luke 1:28-38, the angel Gabriel went to Mary in Nazareth and told her that she was going to be the mother of Jesus, Who was the Christ. The angel also told her that her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, who was in the hill country of Judea, was also carrying a miracle baby of her own. Upon hearing this, Mary immediately left her home in Nazareth and came to visit Elizabeth and Zacharias.

Mary prophesies by proclaiming the Magnificat.

Mary and Elizabeth were probably very familiar with each other. As a child, Mary grew up close to this elderly couple. Mary and Elizabeth probably saw each other at the feasts in Jerusalem or in Ein Karem, perhaps as many as three times a year. But when Mary heard that she and Elizabeth were both carrying miracle babies, she immediately felt that a visit to see her cousin was warranted. Mary had just become pregnant with Jesus, and Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist.

The Church of the Visitation.

There are several churches in Ein Karem. One of these is the Church of the Visitation, which is where we are now, and where it is said that Mary first visited Elizabeth after she had become pregnant. But a little way down the hill is the Church of Saint John the Baptist, where it is said that John was born.

The reason that there are two churches in Ein Karem is because it is believed that Elizabeth and Zacharias owned two homes in Ein Karem. The one which is now the Church of the Visitation was high on the southern edge of the valley, and this was the summer home of Elizabeth and Zacharias. As I said, this is the traditional site of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, and it was the place where Mary gave her famous poetic oration, The Magnificat. You can read The Magnificat in the sixth story of The Merged Gospels.

The Magnificat Plaques.

Most people believe that this summer home is where Elizabeth hid herself in seclusion during the first five months of her pregnancy. If you walk around the courtyard of this church, you will see the Magnificat of Mary inscribed on 47 Mosaics, all of them in different languages.

The church you are looking at was built in 1955, but it was built on top of an ancient church and monastery.

The Burial Chamber.

Here I am discovering human remains inside the burial chamber.

This is one of the ancient rooms in the monastery – a burial chamber for monks who lived here centuries before. Here we discovered a curious hole in a stone wall that had a grill over it. Upon removing the grill we peered into this dark crevice, only to discover that it was a tomb with the remains of some of the monks who had previously lived in this monastery. As with many monasteries in the world, the monks who lived here in the days of the early Church, would not bury their dead, but they would display the bones of their deceased residents to demonstrate the transience of this earthly life.

The Well.

The ancient well.

Here is another interesting artifact in the crypt of this church. At the end of this tunnel there is a well dating back to the first century. This well indicates that someone must have lived nearby, lending support to the tradition that Elizabeth and Zacharias did, in fact, have a home near this location.

Zechariah and Elizabeth at the well.

The Hiding Stone.

It is believed that the baby John the Baptist was hidden behind this stone to protect him from Herod’s murderous Temple guards.

There is something else in this crypt - a large stone mounted in a niche in the wall, protected and venerated by visiting pilgrims, as you can see the many prayer requests at the bottom of this niche. To understand what this stone is, and why it is so respected, we have to go back, once again, to the Protoevangelium of James, which was written about 100 years after Jesus lived on this earth.

Herod’s Search for the Baby John.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi saw a special star in the sky, and they came into Jerusalem looking for the King of the Jews. King Herod met with them, and told them that when they found the Christ child, to come back and report to him so that he could come and worship the child as well. The truth is that all Herod wanted to know was the child’s location, so that he could go and kill him. God warned the Magi in a dream not to go back to Herod, but to return to their own country of Persia by a different route.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod was so angry about having been tricked by the Magi, that he decided to kill all of the baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem who were at least two years old.

The Protoevangelium of James, was written, perhaps, in the early second century, which adds some very interesting detail to this story. It says that officers from Herod went to the priest Zacharias, who was in the Temple in Jerusalem, asking him where his son, John, was. It was obvious that they intended to kill John.

Why did they want to do this? After all, the baby John was from a town called Ein Karem, which was almost six miles away from Bethlehem. The answer is simple. Rumors had gotten around that John was a miracle baby - one of whom it was prophesied that he would preach in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). The Gospel of Luke says that people were wondering all about John when he was born, as to what kind of person he would be. There were stories about the appearance of the angel to Zacharias, about John’s miraculous birth, and about the story of Zacharias’ inability to speak for nine months. All of this had become common knowledge. All of these were probably well-circulated rumors that, no doubt, had reached the ears of Herod himself.

When the Magi showed up, Herod started to put the pieces together. Even though his advisors told him that the King of Israel would be coming from Bethlehem, his concern was about this miracle baby from Ein Karem. According to the Protoevangelium of James, Herod, at this moment, is quoted as saying, “Zacharias’ son is destined to be king over Israel.” So, yes, Herod thought that John proposed the biggest threat to his kingdom. To be on the safe side, he felt that it would be best for him to kill the baby John as well.

Herod’s officers went looking for Zacharias. Because they knew that if they found Zacharias, they would find John. But Zacharias was in the Temple in Jerusalem at that time, not in Ein Karem. When they came to him and asked him where his son was, he said he didn’t know, because, quite honestly, he probably didn’t know at that moment. The officers left, and this gave Zacharias time to send a messenger to his wife, five miles away in Ein Karem, telling her that Herod was searching for John.

The officers came to Zacharias a second time, and he gave them the same answer. But this time, in return for his honesty, they had him killed in the sanctuary of the Temple.

What happened next comes from the Protoevangelium of James, chapter 22. Here it says,

“And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, said, ‘O mountain of God, receive mother and child.’ And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.”

Elizabeth hiding John in the mountains (from an icon in the Chapel of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem).

According to tradition this hiding stone provided a suitable hiding place for the baby John.

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