IN THE CALENDAR USED TODAY by the Byzantine Churches the Liturgical Year begins on September 1. In earlier calendars used in some local Churches, however, the year began with the Feast of the Conception of St John the Forerunner. This feast originated in the East in the fifth century and was observed in some Western dioceses as well although it is not on the general Western calendar.
The basis for this feast is the sequence of events recorded in Luke 1:5-25 – the annunciation to Zachariah, the penalty of Zechariah and the conception of John.
The Annunciation to Zachariah
“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zachariah, of the division of Abijah [Abihu]. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blameless in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years” (vv. 5-7).
In 1 Chronicles 24:7-19 we read that King David and Zadok the High Priest set a schedule for each of the priestly families (named after the sons of Aaron) to serve in the temple. Each family served for eight days, from Sabbath to Sabbath, twice each year. During their times of service the priests lived in the temple quarters, away from their wives and children. In addition all the divisions served during the “pilgrimage feasts” – Pesach, Shavuoth (Pentecost) and Sukkoth (Tabernacles) – when all Jewish men were expected to come to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices.
“So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zachariah saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him” (vv. 8-12).
Some commentators think that the mention of “the multitude of the people” suggests that this event took place during one of the pilgrimage feasts. It could also have been on a Sabbath when more people would have come to worship. St John Chrysostom thought that Zachariah was in Jerusalem for the Day of Atonement when the angel visited him.
“But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zachariah, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’” (vv. 13-17).
The angel’s message describes John as a prophet, calling the people to repentance. The mention that he “shall drink neither wine nor strong drink” suggests that John would also be a Nazarite: one set apart and consecrated to the Lord by a special vow. The first requirement for a Nazarite is that “he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink” (Numbers 6:3). Nazarites were forbidden to cut their hair or do anything that would make them ritually impure. These practices come down to us in monasticism through the witness of John.
“And Zachariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.’ And the angel answered and said to him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But 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.’ And the people waited for Zachariah, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless” (vv. 18-22).
It is often wondered why Zachariah was penalized for questioning Gabriel when the Holy Virgin was not (cf., Luke 1:34). Perhaps it is because conception by a virgin was unknown while there were well-known cases of God enabling conception in old age in the Old Testament. As a priest Zachariah was surely familiar with Sarah’s conception of Isaac (see Genesis 17:15-19) and the conception of the Nazarite Samson by the elderly wife of Manoah (cf., Judges 13). Each of them would play a critical part in the development of God’s plan for His people, as would John.
Another well-known woman who conceived in answer to prayer is Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel (cf., 1 Samuel 1, 2). Long childless, she prayed, “O Lord of hosts, if You will… give Your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.” Samuel, dedicated as a Nazarite before he was conceived, would be the spiritual guide of David and Solomon.
The Conception of John
“So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people’” (vv. 23-25).
Zachariah and Elizabeth lived in the “hill country” of Judea (Luke 1:39). The town of Ein Kerem, southwest of Jerusalem has long been revered as the place of Zachariah’s home, the Visitation and John’s birth. Texts from the sixth and seventh centuries attest to celebrations there connected with the Forerunner and his parents. The tenth-century Book of the Demonstration, attributed to Eutychius of Alexandria noted: “The church of Bayt Zakariya in the district of Aelia bears witness to the visit of Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth.” The two modern churches of St John in Ein Kerem (Orthodox and Roman Catholic) were each built on the remnants of ancient churches.
Joy to you, O barren one unable to give birth! Behold, you conceive today the one who is really a Torch of the Sun, who will enlighten the whole world that suffered from blindness. Rejoice, O Zachariah, and cry out in all confidence: “The one who will be born is a Prophet of the Most High!” (Troparion)