The Messiah Appears in Israel
A NEW PROPHET IN THE DESERT OF JUDEA THE MIRACULOUS HISTORY OF HIS CHILDHOOD ZACHARY THE PRIEST AND ELIZABETH HIS WIFE JOHN, THE PRECURSOR OF THE MESSIAHKING THE BENEDICTUS THE EDUCATION OF THE NEW ELIAS HIS Character. (St. Matthew iii, 9; St. Mark i, 4; St. Luke iii, 1, and i, 525, 5780; St. John i, 69.)
IN the year 15 of Tiberius Caesar, and consequently about 780 A.U.C.,1 a great religious agitation suddenly arose in Palestine. A man from the desert of Judea, whose preaching was as stern as his garb, had sounded the first note of the movement. Like the prophets of old, he wore upon his shoulders a garment of camel's hair, and about his loins a leathern girdle. He drank no wine, for he had taken the Nazarite's vow; and when he did not fast, he was content to live upon locusts and wild honey.2 His hair and beard had grown unchecked. He might have been about the age of thirty; but solitude had matured him and had rendered singularly powerful a soul filled with the breath of God and certain of its prophetic mission in Israel. The man himself was alone a sermon, and he was right in calling himself a "voice of one crying." His voice shook the desert like the roaring of a lion; crowds hastened to behold this latest prophet, and Josephus3 agrees with the Evangelists in testifying to the deep and speedy revolution which he worked among the Jewish people.
His name was John. All that we know of his birth and of his first years St. Luke has set down in his Gospel, deriving it, no doubt, from pious family traditions which he gives with their original Aramean colouring.
In the days of King Herod, he says, there was a "priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia."4 His wife, chosen from the daughters of Aaron, was called Elizabeth. Both were just before God, for they observed faithfully His precepts and ordinances. Yet Elizabeth had always been barren, and both, now advanced in years, had given up all hope of increase around their domestic hearth.5
This was a cause of deep chagrin for this pious family; for every Jew looked upon the sterility of his wife as an evidence of Heaven's displeasure. The devoted couple, like Israel, abandoned of God, advanced into old age without consolation and looked forward to a future full of sadness.
Weighed down by these melancholy thoughts, Zachary, with the other priests of the course of Abia,6 went up one day to Jerusalem to fulfill his weekly service in the Temple. To him fell by lot the most honorable function of the sacrifice, that of offering the sweetsmelling incense in the holy place. This offering, in the law of Moses, was made twice each day, morning and evening, coinciding with the public prayer of which it was the official symbol. Providence, in directing the choice by lot, desired, no doubt, to reward the devotion of a faithful servant, but meant, in particular, to prepare for him a most consoling and miraculous surprise.
The pious sentiments and patriarchal virtues of Zachary had withheld him from having anything in common with the impotent and hypocritical priesthood which at that time encumbered the Temple. His soul, full of faith, like that of a true Israelite, lived in touch with God, wonderfully well disposed for the reception of a sign from Heaven. To come into direct relation with the upper world, it is of no little importance that man should separate himself from earth in his customary aspirations. It is for him by recollection and by piety to enter into this spiritual commerce which at the proper moment will take on a sensible form and be transformed into a visible though supernatural communication.
While the people, prostrate in the sacred parvis, prayed with pious fervour, Zachary advanced, censer in hand,
thinking only of the priestly function he was about to fulfill. When the soul of the priest thus becomes the sympathetic
interpreter of a suppliant assembly, it really dilates and assumes the proportions of the public needs. The pontiff is raised aloft,
and, oblivious of his own personal unworthiness, he feels himself almost worthy to touch and to bend down the heavens.
As Zachary entered the holy place, the loaves of proposition were on his right; on his left stood the candelabrum with
seven branches, and in front the altar of the incense. The latter, covered with sheets of gold, was outlined against the purple
veil which concealed the entrance of the Holy of Holies. Suddenly, standing at the right of the altar which was of good
omen and near the table of the sacred loaves, an Angel appeared to him. The priest was startled. The manifestations of the
higher world terrify us, because they put us in the presence of unknown forces, and conscience, by a moral phenomenon that is
quite natural, then suggests more than ever our weakness and our misery. "Fear not," said the heavenly messenger, "for thy
prayer has been heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John; and thou shalt have joy
and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity; for he shall be great before the Lord; and shall drink no wine nor
strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb, and he shall convert many of the
children of Israel to the Lord their God; and he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias, that he may turn the hearts
the fathers unto the children and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people." 7
The Angel, therefore, is not a messenger of justice or of wrath, but of grace and benediction. Zachary, instead of trembling, must rejoice and give thanks. The wish of his heart, so long vain, is to be realised beyond all hope. He shall have a son; and in his name, John (Jehochanan, Jehovah grants favour), this son will bear the happy omen of the religious influence he is to exercise. Thus his birth will be not only a family joy, but a national event that will stir up in Israel a deepfelt movement of enthusiasm. John, indeed, will be great before God as before men through his virtue and his moral authority. Renouncing ease of life, and reviving, beneath his mortified and even forbidding exterior, the ancient types of theocratic piety, the young Nazarite will rouse again in the hearts of the children the sentiments of the patriarchs, their fathers. This, at least, is the ideal of his task. Human liberty may impede his efforts; but, with his energy for work, the new Elias will spare no effort to reawaken and transform the people whom God is about to visit.
The promise of the Angel fully responded to the strongest wishes of Zachary's heart, and even went beyond them.
Yet, by an inconsistency common enough to our moral constitution, the priest is slow to believe what he so eagerly solicits. "Whereby shall I know this?" says he, "for I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." How many other believers had already called for signs, as a guarantee of God's word, without guilt in the sight of God! How often Heaven had been pleased to grant them in order to sustain the faith of those it tried! And yet the Angel severely reproves the hesitation and doubt of Zachary. It belongs to the Lord alone, in searching hearts and reins, to know the moral dispositions of those He questions. Two men utter the same word, do the same action, and an abyss may separate their respective intentions, or even the intentions are the same and the responsibilities quite unlike. In a moral act there is always room for circumstances which extenuate or aggravate. For, is not doubt the more reprehensible when produced in a soul more enlightened, and after a more evident manifestation from Heaven? Abraham and Gedeon had been excused; Zachary was found guilty. "I am Gabriel, who stand before God," says the Angel, "and am sent to speak to thee and to bring thee these good tidings." There is the gravity of the fault. This is Gabriel, the servant of God; it is God, and not His envoy alone, whom the priest's doubt has offended; and this doubt is produced at the consoling news that God is about to manifest His goodness and His power. Instead of manifesting gratitude Zachary has shown only hesitation. "And behold," adds the messenger from Heaven, "thou shalt be dumb,8 and shalt not be able to speak until the day wherein these things shall come to pass; because thou hast not believed my words which shall be fulfilled in their time."
The people waited in the outside parvis, and were beginning to be surprised at Zachary's long delay in the holy place. Ordinarily the incense was burned with haste in honour of Jehovah, and the priest returned immediately to the people in order to proclaim that nothing untoward had marred the august ceremony. When the old man reappeared, they understood from his troubled exterior that something extraordinary had occurred. When he wished to give the people the final blessing, he had lost the power of speech; and yet his countenance betrayed a great interior joy. They concluded that he had beheld a vision and he, by his signs, strengthened this supposition. Nevertheless, he continued in the performance of his sacerdotal functions, since dumbness miraculously incurred did not constitute a legal irregularity. When the days of his service were completed, he returned to his home.
His vision was the fruit neither of illusion nor of ecstatic overexcitement. Hence it had most positive results. The chastisement and the promise were most fully realised. Zachary remained dumb for nine months, and Zachary became a father. Not long after this visitation, in fact, Elizabeth conceived a son. Whether through false shame, because of her age, or through prudence in order the better to insure the success of her pregnancy, she remained in retirement for five months, rendering to God, in her isolation, her humble thanks. But when, certain of her good fortune, she ventured to appear in public, "thus," she said, "hash the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein He hath had regard to take away my reproach among men."
In the sixth month, the child, leaping in the womb of his mother, hailed in anticipation Him whose precursor he was to be. In the ninth he came forth into the world, and the neighbours and relatives hastened one after the other to congratulate the happy family on the mercy God had shown them.9 Eight days later, with the customary rejoicings, they made ready to circumcise the infant. It seemed to all as if they must call him Zachary, his father's name; but Elizabeth spoke up and said: "Not so, but he shall be called John." In vain they reminded her that no member of the family bore this name; she persisted in the choice, which, either by an interior light or through her husband, she knew had been that of Heaven. Then they appealed to the authority of the father, who, present no doubt during the discussion, heard nothing, being deaf as well as dumb. Zachary asked for a writingtablet, and to the surprise of all he wrote these words: "John is his name." This proved that a higher will had imposed His choice above all human preferences. Directly the priest's mouth was opened and his tongue loosed he spoke, blessing God. The general astonishment was then merged in a holy fear. The intervention of God was manifest in the house of Zachary. At the report of these events, which spread rapidly into the mountains of Judea, and which each one fixed deep in his heart10 that he might recount them to posterity, all exclaimed in amazement: "What an one, think ye, shall this child be? For the hand of the Lord was with him." And Zachary, as if to make answer to this universal wonderment and anxiety, began to prophesy. Unburdening his soul of the canticle which had slowly developed there during the days of his dumbness, he exclaimed:
" Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, 11
Because He hath visited and wrought the redemption of His people:
And hath raised up an horn of salvation to Us,
In the house of David His servant.
As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets who are from the beginning;
Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all that hate us ;
To perform mercy to our fathers;
And to remember His holy testament:
The oath which He swore to Abraham, our father,
That He would grant to us that, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
We may serve Him without fear,
In holiness and justice before Him all our days."
Here, indeed, was the voice of an Israelite's soul, nourished in the hope of the Messiah, and hailing with enthusiastic cry the coming of the Lord.
Then descending, but for a moment, from the heights where divine inspiration had borne him, the priest in brief parenthesis speaks a word of his own son, and indicates his work in the future:
"And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the highest;
For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to His people,
Unto the remission of their sins."
Directly he resumes the hymn of thanksgiving, and completes the description of the happy days about to begin:
" Through the bowels of the mercy of our God,
In which the Orient12 from on high hath Visited us;
To enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death;
To direct our feet into the way of peace."
Thus over this world groaning in its impotence and in the terror of dark night, a heavenly light is about to shine as before a caravan overtaken by a storm in the desert. The star comes down from the bosom of God; it touches the earth, and, rising again directly, appears in the sky like a brilliant sun. Its light will illumine multitudes filled with despair; it will warm again hearts of ice; and, pointing out the way that leads to life, to peace, to the tranquility of order, it will invite all wayfarers to fall again into line to achieve the conquest of their lost fatherland.
Thus did Zachary become the eloquent exponent of the hopes that filled the devoted hearts of the theocratic kingdom. In the name of Israel he hailed the dawn of the longawaited day.
The child grew and became strong among the mountains of Juda, bound by the obligations of the sincere Nazarites; and when he was able to care for himself he retired into absolute solitude and dwelt in the desert.
There this extraordinary nature attained its full development. Solitude has ever been the great school of superior men. There the soul works out slowly her sublime ideas, heaven there is more transparent, and the invisible world seems to assume a more powerful reality. John there meditated the long succession of warnings which the prophets had uttered to the people of Israel; and the voices of nature united with the inspirations from on high to evoke in his conscience the prophetic ideal to be realised.
The desert of Juda is that barren land along the western side of the Dead Sea covering an area of several leagues.
Lightning blasts from heaven have scorched its rocky mountains, and life seems utterly to have abandoned the place. With
difficulty do the few trees here and there bear up nutriment to their languishing branches. Birds of prey and wild beasts alone
disturb the silence of this awful solitude. A few torrents of water, dried up in summer, draw together the rains of winter and
empty them into the vast asphaltic lake whose black, heavy waters emit a deadly miasma. Among rocky ravines nature has
cut deep grottoes; into these John withdrew. Even today everything speaks of an accursed land to the traveler who visits
these mountains. To the young anchorite all was eloquent of the justice of Jehovah. From this long contemplation of woe
and devastation, as well as from the habit of a severe and solitary life, he imbibed that spirit of austerity and of power
which the Angel had called the spirit of the prophet Elias. John, in truth, is a man of the Old rather than of the New
Testament. In his virtue there is a severity that has the true tone of Iraelitism. His exterior, his dress, his language seem the exact
symbol of his temperament and of his soul. This man is to convert, for a certainty, but he will do so with thunderbolts. What a
contrast between him and the Saviour he announces! And yet the type of the Precursor is perfect in its realisation. This virtue
which impresses us, this strength which bruises, even while it declares that it is but a breath, this independence which
nothing checks, either among the lowly, when he must needs strike down the passions of the people, or among the highest,
when obliged to brand the crimes of the great, produce in the Baptist that attractive personality which is found nowhere else,
if we except that Apostle of the Nations who, a few years later, will come forward, by his manly courage and by the
vigour of his speech, as one of those exceptional men whom the race has ceased to produce. In St. John, indeed, we have Elias
and Paul in one. He has the virtue and the irresistible eloquence of both; but, a link, as he is, between Israelitism and
Christianity, we cannot say that he is wholly either the one or the other. His knowledge is less than that of the latter, greater than
of the former. Like Elias, he announces divine vengeance: like Paul, he preaches the Saviour. As bravely as both he will be a martyr to duty, and, that his merit may be the greater, he will die without having beheld the definitive establishment of the kingdom he proclaims. More than prophet, Messenger of God, Forerunner of the Messiah, his truest panegyric will still be that saying of the Master: "Of all that are born of woman there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist."
1 We date the reign of Tiberius from the time of his association with the Empire (January, 765), and not from the death of Augustus (August 19, 767). This method of reckoning, the most usual in the East, was followed particularly at Antioch, as is proved by the inscription and the medals mentioned by Wieseler, Synopse der vier Evangelien. (See Andrews, Life of Our Lord, p. 25, and following.) It makes the ministry of John and the baptism of Jesus coincide with the year 26 A.D. The commentators who date the reign of Tiberius from the death of Augustus suppose that the Evangelist, by this chronological indication. means the beginning of the Baptist's preaching and not the baptism of Jesus.
2 We still find in the East poor people who live on a particular species of locust, Wild honey is that which the bees deposit in the hollows of the trees or in the fissures of the rocks. It has been wrongly thought that this was the gum that oozes through the bark of certain trees of the desert.
3 Antiq., xviii 5 12.
4 Exodus xxx, 78.
5 According to the Book of Numbers viii, 23, the Levites ceased the exercise of their solemn functions when they had completed their fiftieth year. Thereafter they thought it enough to take part in the Temple service in a subordinate capacity. Zachary, therefore, was not altogether an old man, The text of the Gospel means that, having been married a long time, they no longer hoped, as they were growing old, for the children whom they had failed to beget in their youth.
6 David had distributed the priests into twentyfour classes, which in turn performed the service from one Sabbath to another. The class of Abia was the eighth. (I Par., xxiv 10; Josephus, Ant., vii, 15, etc.) Since we know that on the ninth of the fifth month of the year of Rome 823, or on the fourth of August of the year 70 of our era, the day on which the Temple was destroyed, the first class was in service, some have endeavoured to reckon back to the year in which Jesus was probably born, in order to find the month wherein John was conceived. But the result of this calculation varies according as they admit for the date of Our Saviour's birth the year 749 or 750 of Rome. We ought to know not only the time from which to date back, but also the point at which to cease our calculations.
7 The Angel's words recall successively, Judges xiii; Jeremias i, 5; and especially the prophecy of Malachias iii, 1: iv, 5, 6. It is remarkable that for the Angel as for the prophet, God and He whom John is to precede are one and the same. With reason does theology find here an indication of the Divinity of Jesus.
8 As in several other passages in the Gospel. the word "dumb" signifies here, deafmute. A proof of this is found in what happens when the name is given to the child.
9 Mary must have been present since according to the Gospel she had come to visit her cousin in the sixth month after the conception of John and spent three months in Zachary's house.
10 The Evangelist here perhaps gives us a clue to the sources whence he derives his narrative.
11 This canticle is entirely Hebrew; it is easier to retranslate it from Greek into its original language than to express it in our modern idioms.
12 According to Zachary (vi 12) this is one of the names of Jesus Christ, the true Zorobabel who is to re-establish the worship of the Lord
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