Gathered in Mark’s house, during those days prior to the feast of Pentecost, we asked Mary, Jesus’ mother, a lot of questions. She kept on sharing with us old memories of her youth, and of the time when God began to fulfill His promises to Abraham…
Mary: When my mother, Anne, learned about my condition, oh, God, she put her hands on her head, crying and shouting, telling a thousand things to my face… Now, I can only laugh at the memory, but in those days…!
Anne: Oh, what a shame! Mary, my child, what a humiliation! This is a disgrace to the family! From your great, great grandparents, I never knew there was ever such scandal!… And now you…!
Mary: But, Mama, I already told you, this is God’s doing….
Anne: Oh, yes. First, we commit the indiscretion, then we blame the slip on God!
Mary: For God’s sake, Mama, you’ve got to believe me…
Anne: No, no, no! Let’s not start all over again, nor should you speak more! How could a decent and well-bred girl like you ever have done this….
Mary: Mama, I’m fifteen years old, I’m no longer a child….
Anne: I know, I know… You are an insolent, shameless woman!
Mary: Mama, I… I….
Anne: All right, don’t cry anymore, child… Oh Lord, how can we ever get out of this mess, Holy God!… Look, Mary, whatever happens, you’ve got to leave Nazareth. This village is too small, and the neighbors have such malicious tongues…. You’ll stay in the house of some relatives in the south. Come back when the child is born. We’ll tell the neighbors that you found him in a basket, like Moses or something….
Mary: But, Mama, I can’t leave this place… Joseph and I are getting married… I want to be by his side…. He’s my boyfriend…
Anne: He’ll cease to be once he finds out… He can stone you to death… and for a reason!
Mary: Mama, please help me….
Anne: Oh, my child, you should’ve thought about this first. There’s nothing we can do now. It’s no use crying over spilt milk.
Mary: But I haven’t done anything… I… haven’t….
Anne: Listen, Mary dear, your brother, Yayo, is taking a trip to Jerusalem next week with one of the caravans of those selling wheat… You’ll go with him… I’ll tell him to bring you to the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah…. Remember them? They’re our distant cousins. It’s been a long time since they left to live in this little town they call Ain Karim, near the capital. They’ll take good care of you there. Besides, since Elizabeth is also expecting a baby, which will just be a matter of months, well, you can give her a hand. This way, you won’t just be a stinking guest, do you understand?
Mary: Yes, Mama….
Mary: So, the caravan carrying wheat passed and Yayo, who was the eldest of my brothers, saddled a mule for me and we set out on the road with them, toward the south. The truth was, I was so scared. I was wearing a green, striped robe, the only one I had, and a new scarf that Susana had lent me….
Yayo: Pff! How hot it is… I feel so hot and starved!… Hey, what did you bring in your basket, Mary?
Mary: Some doughnuts with honey that Mama prepared….
Yayo: Yeah? Gimme one, at least, that shortens the journey, somehow….
Mary: Oh no, they’re for Aunt Elizabeth….
Yayo: Just gimme me a piece. That won’t make a difference…
Mary: I know you, Yayo. You ask for one and you end up eating everything….
Yayo: Okay, okay…. Ha! So, you’re bringing these doughnuts for Aunt Elizabeth…. Why?… Because you’re hiding something?
Mary: What did you say…?
Yayo: Oh, c’mon, don’t be shy…. Tell me, it was Joseph, wasn’t it?… He did it, didn’t he?
Mary: What’re you talking about, Yayo…?
Yayo: Don’t deny it, my little sister… I know everything, do you hear? Everything. But don’t you worry, when I get back from Jerusalem, that whippersnapper will see who I am…!
Mary: But what’re you talking about, Yayo? Are you out of your mind?
Yayo: What I’m saying is, a swine like him cannot disgrace a sister of mine just like that! I’ve never seen such a brazen person…!
Mary: For God’s sake, Yayo, don’t scream, I beg of you…! Joseph is not to blame for anything… he has not even lifted a finger on me…
Yayo: Ah, no?… Who did it, then?… C’mon, tell me!
Mary: I don’t know, Yayo, I really don’t know….
Yayo: You’re not telling me it was a bee that bit you and made your belly swell… C’mon, tell me the truth!
Mary: No… do you still want a doughnut, Yayo? Here, take it….
Mary: We took the route to the mountains. I had never left the house and to me, everything was new and strange…. the trees, the towns, the people… After three long days of journey along the road, we arrived in the barren and sun-drenched lands of Judea…. We were very tired…. We could see Jerusalem at a distance, but we separated from the caravan and entered through a path leading to the small village of Ain Karim… It was called this because of the fresh spring water in the middle of a large vineyard…. Our distant relatives lived in a small house here….
Yayo: Well, sister, I know you can take care of yourself. I shall proceed to the capital, as it is getting late.
Mary: For God’s sake, Yayo, don’t leave me alone… I’m embarrassed to introduce myself like this, without knowing anyone…
Yayo: You should have been embarrassed before and not now…. Goodbye, Mary, good luck!
Elizabeth: So, you’re Mary, the daughter of Joachim and Anne. I can’t believe this! You’re so pretty, my child! And how you’ve grown! But, what’re you doing here, who brought you here…?
Mary: I came with my brother Yayo, who was going to the capital….
Elizabeth: Oh, Mary, how happy I am to see you! And what a surprise! I’m glad your mother has thought of this! Oh, wait, my baby is moving!… Here, touch me, put your hand here, do you feel it? Know what, Mary dear? I’m expecting a child!… There’s no fool like an old fool, so they say…! Come on in, and meet your uncle… Zechariah, old man, look who’s here to visit us! Poor man, when he learned he was going to be a father, he got so shocked, he lost his speech….
Zechariah!… Now tell me, how’s your mother, and how’s everyone over there?…
Mary: Aunt Elizabeth was very affectionate with me. She treated me like her own daughter…. She taught me many things: how to weave and to loom with fine thread, as this was never known in Nazareth…. She also taught me how to cook red beans… the very ones that Rebekah cooked for Isaac. This was how the women were assured of their men…. The truth is, I couldn’t ask for more. Aunt Elizabeth helped me a lot and gave me self-confidence… especially that day I was washing the clothes in the patio… and I tripped….
Elizabeth: Those dizzy spells, today, yesterday and last Saturday… That’s too much in a row, don’t you think so?
Mary: It’s the heat, Aunt Elizabeth…
Elizabeth: Could it be something else?… Look, my child, I’m already old and I can distinguish a blind man sleeping and a lame man seated…
Mary: Aunt Elizabeth, I… I’ve got to tell you something…
Elizabeth: You’re pregnant, aren’t you?… Come, young woman, let’s talk under the shade…. Unburden yourself…. Look, the soul is like an intestine, when it becomes full, it gets indigested….
Elizabeth: So, you’re going to have a baby… Well, we’ll be on equal footing! First, you help me with my baby, then I help you with yours. What do you think, Mary dear?
Mary: But Auntie, do you believe what I’ve told you…?
Elizabeth: Of course, my dear. Why not? God is great and He makes great things. I should know…! Look at me… I was as barren as Abraham’s wife, do you understand? Zechariah was already old. Was there any hope left? Nothing. Oh, my child, how many nights had I spent praying to God to take pity on me, to give me a child! Only God knows how much I have wept during all those years!… And Zechariah, who was always a grouchy person, was getting worse everytime and laying the blame on me. I could only weep. But what could I do, tell me?… Until the day of the Lord came. Yes, my child, God has his own time and moment. That morning, Zechariah went as usual, to the Temple with the other priests, to burn incense. He remained a long time, praying in the Temple. In the afternoon, when he got back, with those sad eyes, I told him: “Rejoice, old man, and go get yourself a place in the matting for we shall have a visitor soon.” He asked: “Who the hell is coming to the house?” Then I told him: “A little angel, a child of yours! I’m pregnant, old man!”…. Oh Mary, after I said that, he became dumb, because he didn’t believe it, of course. He had already lost all hope. But look how happy he must be, now that I’m going on seven months. He hasn’t recovered his speech yet…. This is the work of the Lord!
Mary: What a beautiful story, Aunt Elizabeth!
Elizabeth: Yours is even more beautiful, Mary. You’ll see.
Mary: God was merciful with you…
Elizabeth: You bet, my child. Because if it were not for God’s hand, with Zechariah alone, it would be futile. You know what? I like what you said: mercy. That’s a pretty name. If this child is a boy, we shall call him “John”, because of “mercy”….
Mary: The time came, and Elizabeth gave birth to a big, strong, baby boy. The whole neighborhood of Ain Karim went to greet my aunt… They brought with them chickens, sweets and jars of honey which was abundant in the mountains…
A Female Neighbor: My goodness, Elizabeth, what they say is therefore true: Better late than never! Look! What a boy! Praise God! He’s a little darling!
Mary: On the eighth day, as it was the custom, the rabbi was called to circumcise the newly born child… Zechariah’s little house almost burst with people, songs and celebration…
Female Neighbor: Congratulations, Elizabeth, and God bless the child! He’s so cute, my gosh, I feel like devouring him!
Elizabeth: Oh, please don’t, neighbor. He’s the only one I got, and it took me a lot of work to make him! Well, in the end, God took pity on me!
Female Neighbor: Say, how will you call him?
Elizabeth: Well, he’ll be called John.
Male Neighbor: John? But why? There’s no one by that name in your family.
Elizabeth: Neither was there anyone in the family who had difficulty in childbirth. We shall call him John!
Female Neighbor: Of course, you should take advantage, since old Zech can say nothing… Here he comes…. Hey, Zechariah, come over here… What do you think? What name will you give your son?
Female Neighbor: Wait a minute, not even wise Solomon could understand you…
Elizabeth: Bring him a board. He says to bring him a board.
Female Neighbor: How come you understand this jargon of his, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: Oh, my child, thirty-five years of staying together, isn’t that enough…!
Mary: They brought him a board and a writing tool. Uncle Zechariah scribbled the letters of the name that my aunt and he wanted for their son…
Female Neighbor: What did you write there, old Zech? Lemme see…?
Male Neighbor: John? Oh no, not John! No way!
Zechariah: Humumu…. John, yes! John is his name, blazes!!!
Female Neighbor: Did you hear him, Elizabeth? Your husband can speak!
Mary: Uncle Zechariah’s face brightened up and his eyes were filled with tears, those eyes which had gone weary for having waited so long. But now there was radiance in them, for the joy of being a father, for the happiness of having brought a child into this world….
Zechariah: Praise God!!
Elizabeth: So, you can speak, old man?
Zechariah: Blessed be God who is merciful, for He has made you fertile, woman! Blessed be our country! Her liberation is coming! The Lord gave that promise to our father, Abraham. He announced it through the lips of our prophets, and He will fulfill that promise soon, very soon, so that we can serve Him without fear, in our free country! God bless you my son, my son of mercy! You will go ahead, making way for the Lord, preparing for Him a new people who are willing, until the Light of the Almighty shines in the midst of darkness, so that we may tread every path of peace.
Female Neighbor: Good, Zechariah, very good, it has even made a poet out of you, imagine!
Mary: I’ll never ever forget that party. The neighbors of Ain Karim gave a toast to John, the little son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. They regaled him with some poems of good luck and danced in the patio until dawn….
Elizabeth: So, you see, Mary?… See how well God makes things happen? Don’t be afraid, young woman…
If God has chosen you, and blessed the fruit in your womb, then He will take care of everything for you… Then the day will come when they will compliment you, the way they have com¬-plimented me now… and there will be many such days, Mary…
Mary: Yes, God was good with Aunt Elizabeth, and so was He with me. The truth is, He has been very good to me, and I’ll never stop thanking Him. You’ve seen whom He has chosen…. This is the way of the Lord…. He brings down the powerful from their throne, while He lifts the humble from their misery… The rich, He renders empty. And He feeds the hungry… He gave a child to the sterile Elizabeth. And with me, He made the greatest miracle, because He made me see with my own eyes my own son, Jesus, raised from the dead…. Sometimes I think that everything that has happened is what God had promised to Abraham and to our fathers, what we have been waiting for, for generations.
The kinship of Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, to the family of Mary, is not a historical piece of information that can be verified. This relationship was not necessarily that of a “cousin” as it has been traditionally presented. In any case, whether they were relatives or not, Luke presents them as such by means of family ties. With this, rather than speak of blood relationship, Luke is showing more of the spiritual ties between Elizabeth’s son – John the Baptist – and Jesus, who is Mary’s son. The two were in the same line of the great prophets of Israel, men of God and of their people.
According to an ancient tradition of about five hundred years after Christ, John the Baptist ought to have been born in Ain Karim, a village situated in the mountains of Judea, about 7.5 kilometers west of Jerusalem. There is an abundance of olive trees and vineyards in this area. Ain Karim means “fountain of the vineyard.” Its fertile land, which is in contrast with the desert land in the surrounding areas, provides for a very beautiful panorama. Among the many churches and convents built in memory of the Baptist, we can mention the Church of St. John where the birthplace of the prophet must have been, and the Church of the Visitation, big and surrounded by gardens, where the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah must have been located. Along the whole cloister of this church can be seen mosaic tiles containing the text of the song of Mary, the Magnificat, written in tens of languages.
Aside from the high priest and the family priests of the sacerdotal aristocracy of Jerusalem, there was in Israel a great mass of simple priests. They are estimated to have been more than 7,000 in the whole country, although in Galilee, there were only very few of them. These were men from poor families, almost all of which had to practice manual work in their towns in order to survive, because of limited resources (carpentry, stonecutting, selling, animal slaughter). They had a house, a wife and children. Their simple life was in constrast with that of the chief priests – the privileged and the rich – and this explains why this lowly clergy shared a common cause with the people in an uprising against the Romans in the year 66 after the death of Jesus. One of these priests was Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father and Elizabeth’s husband.
In Jesus’ time, the priests were divided into 24 classes or groups. Each one of them took turns in weekly service in the Temple – from Saturday to Saturday.
Those who lived outside the capital – like Zechariah – traveled to Jerusalem just for this and remained there during this time. It is estimated that each section or group should have 300 priests. During the week of service, daily work was assigned by drawing lots. In the morning, there was an offering of perfumes, burning of an animal, and there were libations too… In the afternoon, the altar was purified, perfumes were burned, etc. Firewood had to be brought for the holocausts. Private sacrifices of the faithful had to be attended to, etc. Zechariah – who belonged to the group or family of Abiah – was offering perfumes (incense was burned to provide good scent) at the time of the afternoon sacrifice, when he learned that his wife was going to bear a child.
In order to write the story of the birth of John, Luke was inspired literally by the “miraculous” birth of Samuel (1 S 1:1-28). Elizabeth lived her pregnancy, like Anne – the mother of the prophet, Samuel – and like Mary herself, knowing that God did something beautiful and amazing. She was already old when she became pregnant, for she was sterile prior to this. Given these data, Luke likewise points out – as in the case of Jesus – that John is God’s gift to his mother and people. He shall be the precursor prophet of Jesus, who will mobilize Israel toward the promise of liberation. His name – John – means “God had mercy.” Elizabeth and Zechariah, who had lost all hopes of having a child, acknowledged God’s immense gift to them by giving that name to their son. Zechariah’s verses in celebrating the birth of their son, like the song of Mary when she met Elizabeth, are poems with which Luke, the evangelist, wanted to express the joy that those children gifted by God to their mothers were to bring to history. The song of Zechariah – called the “Benedictus,” the latin translation of its initial word – is interspersed with phrases found in psalms and uttered by the prophets themselves. All these reflect the longing for freedom in every Israelite’s heart when John appeared in this world.
Mary’s song – the “Magnificat” (exaltation), also named because of the Latin translation of its initial word – is inspired by the song of Anne, that barren woman who was the mother of the last judge of Israel (1 S 2:1-10) and from the other expressions of the psalms, the prophets and the book of Genesis.
Even before Jesus’ birth, Mary, his mother, sang what would be the good news proclaimed by his son, where he revealed God’s plan: the hungry shall be fed and the rich shall be hungry the powerful shall fall from their thrones and the humble shall be raised… It is the subversion of the values of an unjust world. Jesus shall promote this with his word and his life. If by any chance we are tempted to think of Mary as a woman solely of prayer, one who remains silent and one who obeys, it will be good to remember these words with which she starts the gospel, to reread this song of liberation and hope which Luke had put in her lips….