Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth are the parents of Saint John the Baptist. Saint Zechariah was an Israelite priest, and Saint Elizabeth his wife was a cousin of the Virgin Mary. They were an old couple who were childless, which was a great shame in their culture. But God miraculously gave them a son in their old age. Saint Zechariah did not believe when an angel told him the news, and as a result was struck dumb until the child was born. We will read from the account of Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth from the Gospel of Luke, and read reflections on the lives of the saints from homilies by Archbishop William Lori from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, and Father Ted Bobosh from the Orthodox Church of America's Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of Saint John the Baptist.
Saint Zechariah was an Israelite priest, and his wife Elizabeth was a relative of the Virgin Mary. Their story appears in the Gospel of Luke. They are an elderly couple who are barren, which is a source of shame for them. But an angel reveals that they are miraculously, going to have a son. This is Luke Chapter 1
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.’
The angel said to him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realised he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’
One key event in the life of Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth is the visitation, when a pregnant Virgin Mary visits her relative, Elizabeth, also pregnant. This event is celebrated in May 31 in the western church, and 30 March in the Eastern church. The event is recounted in Luke chapter 2:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!’
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
We will continue with Luke’s account of the birth of St John the Baptist, which contains a wonderful hymn, known as the Benedictus, or Song of Zechariah, which Zechariah exclaims when he is finally able to speak again, praising God for the miraculous birth of his son.
When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’
They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name.’
Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbours were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us –
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.’
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are not mentioned any more in the scriptures, but church tradition hold that Zechariah was killed during Herod’s massacre of the infants. King Herod hears of the coming of Jesus Christ from the three wise men, and feeling threatened, kills all the babies in his kingdom. The Infancy Gospel of James, and apocryphal work, tells of how Elizabeth and John the Baptist escape from Herod’s clutches, and Zechariah is killed:
When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he
flew into a rage 2and dispatched his executioners with instructions to
kill all the infants two years old and younger.
3When Mary heard that the infants were being killed, she was
frightened 4and took her child, wrapped him in strips of cloth, and put
him in a feeding trough used by cattle.
SAs for Elizabeth, when she heard that they were looking for John,
she took him and went up into the hill country. 6She kept searching for
a place to hide him, but there was none to be had. 7Then she groaned
and said out loud, "Mountain of God, please take in a mother with her
child." You see, Elizabeth was unable to keep on climbing because her
nerve failed her. 8But suddenly the mountain was split open and let
them in. This mountain allowed the light to shine through to her,
9since a messenger of the Lord was with them for protection.
Herod, though, kept looking for John 2and sent his agents to
Zechariah serving at the altar with this message for him: "Where have
you hidden your son?"
3But he answered them, "I am a minister of God, attending to his
temple. How should I know where my son is?"
4S 0 the agents left and reported all this to Herod, who became angry
and said, "Is his son going to rule over Israel?"
5And he sent his agents back with this message for him: "Tell me the
truth. Where is your son? Don't you know that I have your life in my
6And the agents went and reported this message to him.
7Zechariah answered, "I am a martyr for God. Take my life. 8The
Lord, though, will receive my spirit because you are shedding innocent
blood at the entrance to the temple of the Lord."
9And so at daybreak Zechariah was murdered, but the people of
Israel did not know that he had been murdered.
At the hour offormal greetings the priests departed, but Zechar
iah did not meet and bless them as was customary, 2And so the priests
waited around for Zechariah, to greet him with prayer and to praise the
Most High God,
3But when he did not show up, they all became fearfuL 40ne of
them, however, summoned up his courage, entered the sanctuary, and
saw dried blood next to the Lord's altar, 5 And a voice said, "Zechariah
has been murdered! His blood will not be cleaned up until his avenger
6When he heard this utterance he was afraid and went out and
reported to the priests what he had seen and heard, 7 And they
summoned up their courage, entered, and saw what had happened,
8The panels of the temple cried out, and the priests ripped their robes
from top to bottom, 9They didn't find a corpse, but they did find his
blood, now turned to stone. l°They were afraid and went out and
reported to the people that Zechariah had been murdered. llWhen all
the tribes of the people heard this, they began to mourn; and they beat
their breasts for three days and three nights.
Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth are celebrated on September 5 in the Orthodox and Anglican churches, and on September 23 on the Roman Catholic church calendar. In the western church’s season of Advent, there usually appears a reflection on Zechariah. We will share here on such reflection, in an advent homily by Archbishop William Lori, from the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Baltimore.
Today, we encounter the high priest Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and the father of John the Baptist. As he was ministering in the temple, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him to announce that his wife, Elizabeth, well beyond her child-bearing years, would conceive and give birth to a son who would be a prophet, indeed, the prophet, announcing the coming of the Messiah into the world. As good and faithful as he was, Zechariah doubted the Angel’s message, protesting that both he and his wife were well beyond the age of childbearing. Because of his resistance, his doubt, Zechariah lost his powers of speech and by implication also his powers of hearing. He was plunged, if only temporarily, into a world of silence.
Zechariah’s “Advent” and Ours
If we step back for a moment, we might wonder if it were fair that Zechariah would lose his powers of speech and hearing simply because he entered a very reasonable doubt, a healthy skepticism. What are we to make of what befell Zechariah? And what does the silence of Zechariah mean for you and me?
We might regard the silence imposed on Zechariah merely as a punishment, but I would suggest instead that this period of time in which he said nothing and heard no earthly sounds – I would suggest that this period of time was “Zechariah’s Advent”. Into the silence, God and God alone spoke to Zechariah. There in the depths of his heart reverberated the Word of God to which Zechariah had been so attentive throughout his life. With nothing to distract him, he mulled over the wondrous deeds that God in his mercy had done for his people through the centuries. He mulled over in his mind and heart how, time and time again, God intervened in the birth of those he had chosen for some special mission, such as Sampson – about whom we read in today’ first reading from Judges.
Zechariah’s silence was broken only after his son was born and Zechariah, in obedience to the Angel, signaled that he would be named “John”. With that his ears were opened and his tongue was loosened and he sang a beautiful canticle of praise immortalized in the Church’s daily worship.
What, then, is the meaning of Zechariah’s intense and silent Advent for us? Doesn’t this episode in the Gospel urge you and me, in the final and very busy days just prior to the celebration of Christmas? To carve out some times for silent prayer, some time to be alone with the Lord, periods of time when we shut down every device and every source of noise – and are alone with the Lord in prayer, listening to the Lord in the silence of our hearts, remembering his mercies and blessings in our lives, seeking to welcome him into our hearts more completely and more intently? Then, when Christmas dawns, our ears will be opened to the Good News and our tongues loosened to proclaim the tidings of good news announced by the Angels on that first Christmas night – “Glory to God in the highest and peace to people of goodwill.”
Let us hear also from Father Ted Bobosh, a priest from the Orthodox Church of America’s Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit church in Cincinatti Ohio. In this homily he reflects on what Zechariah and Elizabeth teach us about remaining faithful to God, even when we don’t seem to see blessings from him.
God has assigned for each of us a special task to accomplish in the world. However great or simple, however significant or small, our salvation is linked to this task God has given us each to do. God chooses you specifically to accomplish the task only you can do. Each of us is irreplaceable in God’s plan for our salvation. The best way to know what our task is, is to be a person of prayer. By constantly being in God’s presence and by keeping our heart looking toward God, we will be given the guidance we need to accomplish our unique task. Being God centered, living a godly life, meditating on God’s Word, worshiping God, all help us to realize what it is God has created us to do.
St Luke says Zechariah and Elizabeth were both righteous in God’s eyes, without any fault in keeping God’s commandments. They each had a prayer life and studied God’s teachings, living according to those teachings. Thus they prepared themselves to do God’s will.
But note, according to St Luke they were judged harshly by many as being cursed since they had no children. However, their righteousness was seen by God and they were favored by God even though in the world they had no physical or spiritual reward from God which they could show to others.
It is a lesson for us – remain faithful to God even if you don’t feel you are blessed by God. Even if you see sinners prospering, don’t be deceived into thinking God doesn’t see or that God doesn’t care or that God doesn’t exist. God’s favor does not always come to us in ways that the world can measure it.
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Let us end this episode with the Eastern Orthodox kontakion for Saint Elizabeth:
As the full moon brightly reflects the light of the sun,
you reflected the glory of the Messiah, the Light of wisdom!
With Zachariah you walked in all of the Lord¹s commandments, Elizabeth, beloved by God.
So as we bless you with fitting songs,
we praise the Lord, the bountiful Light, Who enlightens all.