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Ein Karem, birthplace of John the Baptist

J. Gil
In the Footprints of our Faith

Ein Karem is a little village about six kilometers west of the Old City of Jerusalem, on the outskirts of
present-day Jerusalem. Its buildings, in light-coloured stone, seem rooted in the leafy hillsides, where
groves of pines and cypresses alternate with terraces of vines and olive-trees. Apparently in our Lords
times it was a town reserved for priests and Levites; its proximity to the Temple made it easy for them to
get there to fulfil their priestly duties when their turn came every six months. According to ancient
traditions it was here that Zachary and Elizabeth lived, and to this town that Mary came when, having
received the angels annunciation, she arose and went with haste to the hill country, to a city of Judah
(Lk 1:39). And, three months later, when the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered (Lk 1:57), it was
here that John the Baptist was born.
The memory of these events, as related by St Luke, is recalled today in two churches: the Church of the
Visitation, which is set high up to the south of the town, beyond a spring which has supplied the
townspeople with water from time immemorial; and the Church of St John the Baptist, which is held to be
the place where he was born. Both have belonged to the Custody of the Holy Land since the
seventeenth century.
The Church of the Visitation
Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And
when Elizabeth heard the greeting of
Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the
Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, Blessed are you among
women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted
me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when
the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb
leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a
fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord! (Lk 1:40-45).
The pilgrim reaches the Church of the Visitation up a steep path in
which steps have been carved. It gives a panoramic view of Ain Karim
and its surroundings. At the top of the slope the site is outlined by an
artistic wrought-iron fence and gateway, giving onto a long courtyard.
On the left, on one of the walls of the
church a mosaic shows Our Lady journeying from Nazareth, riding on
a donkey and surrounded by angels. On the right, next to the door, a
sculpture shows the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth and on the wall
The Church of the Visitation at Ain
Karim. Photo: Nicola e Pina

behind it is covered by Marys hymn, the Magnificat, in many different languages.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has
regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will
call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his
name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has
shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their
hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low
degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty
away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to
our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.(Lk 1: 46-55)
Archaeological excavations have shown that Christian worship on this spot goes back to the
Byzantine era. At the same time, it seems that until the arrival of the Crusades, the place also
commemorated an event after the Visitation, related by the protoevangelium of James, an
apocryphal document from the second century: the flight of St Elizabeth with her child to save him
from Herods soldiers who were killing male children in Bethlehem and the land around it (Matt 2:
16). This tradition is preserved in the crypt of the church, reached via the courtyard. It is a
rectangular chapel with an ancient cave used for worship, closed with a stone vault and containing
a well, fed by a spring. On the right of the gallery, in a niche, is a rock that is venerated as the
hiding-place of the infant John the Baptist.

All generations call our Lady blessed: altarpiece of the Church of the Visitation. Photo: Alfonso Puertas.
The Church of the Visitation, completed in 1940, is built over the crypt on the same spot as the church
built by the Crusaders in the twelfth century. The normal entrance is via an external stairway that starts
from the courtyard and passes through an area of flowers. Inside the church, paintings and mosaics
show the praise of Mary down through the ages; Mary as mediatrix at the Wedding-feast of Cana; Mary
as Refuge of Christians, protecting the faithful with her mantle; the proclamation of her divine maternity
at the Council of Ephesus; the defence of the Immaculate Conception by Blessed Duns Scotus; and her
intercession for Christians at the Battle of Lepanto.
The Church of St John the Baptist
Elizabeth gave birth to a son. And her neighbours and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great
mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and
they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, Not so; he shall be called
John. And they said to her, None of your kindred is called by this name. And they made signs to his
father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing-tablet, and wrote, His name
is John. And they all marvelled. (Lk 1: 57-63).

Aerial view of the Church of St John the Baptist. Photo: Israel Tourism (Flickr).
The Church of St John the Baptist is built on the place traditionally known as the house of Zachary and
Elizabeth, where St John the Baptist was born. Like the Church of the Visitation, this churchs outer walls
are covered with the words of a hymn in different languages, this time the Benedictus, which was first
spoken on this spot.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and
has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he
spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 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 Most High; for you will go
before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in
the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall
dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the
shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.(Lk 1: 68-79)
The present church was built on the plan of the twelfth-century Crusaders church, which in turn copied
the former Byzantine church. Necessary restorations were undertaken from the seventeenth to the
twentieth centuries, which strengthened and adorned the structure, and enabled valuable archaeological
investigations to be carried out. The church has a nave and two aisles. The crossing of nave and
transept is surmounted by a dome, and the north apse includes a cave dug in the hillside. This was
undoubtedly part of a first-century Jewish dwelling-place; according to tradition, this was the house of
Zachary. Beneath the altar a Latin inscription proclaims that John the Baptist, our Lords forerunner, was
born here: Hic Prcursor Domini natus est.
Mystery of Joy
The atmosphere that pervades the evangelical episode of the Visitation is joy: the mystery of the
Visitation is a mystery of joy. John the Baptist exults with joy in the womb of St Elizabeth; the latter,
rejoicing in the gift of motherhood, bursts out into blessings of the Lord; Mary pours forth the Magnificat,
a hymn overflowing with Messianic joy.

Take refuge in your divine
sonship: God is your most
loving Father. In this lies your
security, a haven where you
can drop anchor no matter
what is happening

Beneath the altar is venerated the place where John the Baptist was born. Photo: Alfonso Puertas.
But what is the mysterious, hidden source of this joy? It is Jesus, whom Mary has already conceived
thanks to the Holy Spirit, and who is already beginning to defeat what is the root of fear, anguish and
sadness: sin, the most humiliating slavery for man St John Paul II, homily, 31 May 1979.
Our own and other peoples experience proves that if we live selfishly, cutting ourselves off from God, we
are sad. In contrast, it is a source of joy to be close to our Lord Jesus Christ, recognizing his presence in
us and among us as a friend, a brother, who is there with us and gives us light in our desire to fulfil the
will of God our Father. Do not be men and women of sadness, said Pope Francis shortly after his
election. A Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy born from
having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus, in our midst; it is born from
knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our lifes journey comes
up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them! Pope
Francis, homily, 24 March 2013.
When menaced with discouragement, whether because of
external factors or as happens very often because we
realize our personal shortcomings, St Josemarias advice
can revive our faith. Be simple. Open your heart. Look: as
yet nothing has been lost. You can still go forward, and
with more love, with more affection, with more strength.
Take refuge in your divine sonship: God is your most
loving Father. In this lies your security, a haven where you
can drop anchor no matter what is happening on the
surface of the sea of life. And you will find joy, strength,
optimism: victory! (The Way of the Cross, 7th Station, point 2).
Knowing that we are Gods children, with apostolic zeal, we will feel the need to infect others with our
happiness, to give light to souls so that many should not remain in darkness, but walk instead along
paths that lead to eternal life (The Forge, no. 1). Every Christian has the duty to bring peace and joy to
their own surroundings on earth. This cheerful crusade of manliness will move even shrivelled or rotten
hearts, and raise them to God (Furrow, no. 92).
Looking on the immense panorama of souls who are awaiting us, and being struck by the wonderful and
awesome responsibility before us, you may at times have asked yourself, as I have: Can I contribute
anything, when the task is so vast? I, who am so puny? It is then we have to open the Gospel and
contemplate how Jesus cures the man born blind. He uses mud made from the dust of the earth and
saliva. Yet this is the salve which brings light to those blind eyes! That is what you and I are. Fully aware
of our weaknesses and our worthlessness, but with the grace of God and our good will, we can be salve
to give light and provide strength for others as well as for ourselves (The Forge, no. 370).