The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
“What will this child ever be?” (Lk 1:66); this is how, according to the Gospel of Luke, the men and women who witnessed this event react to the birth of John the Baptist. And in fact it was a truly prodigious juncture: John’s mother and Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, was elderly and barren; Zechariah himself had had an angelic vision that brought him the announcement of the future birth of his son, then he had become mute, because he had doubted the words of the angel …
Why is it celebrated today?
In the Catholic liturgy, it is precisely today that this Gospel episode is commemorated. The birth of John the Baptist is celebrated on the summer, when, after the solstice, the days begin, slowly, to become shorter. This choice is full of meaning: John the Baptist, in fact, had the role of preparing the way for the Lord, of inciting the people of Israel to conversion, to be found ready for the coming of the Messiah. John’s role is therefore all in announcing the coming of another, of Jesus.
John the Baptist does not highlight himself, but the Lord. That is why he will say, according to the Evangelist John: “He must grow; but I diminish” (Jn 3:30). The Church recalls this ‘decrease’ of John the Baptist in the time when even the sun begins to ‘decrease’, to illuminate the days for a shorter time.
The Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
The birth of John the Baptist is, in short, a mystery to be celebrated carefully. In the Holy Land, in the village of Ain Karim, near Jerusalem, there is therefore a building that recalls this moment in the history of salvation. It is the church of the nativity of St. John the Baptist, also known through the name given to it by the crusaders of St. John on the mountain.
To say that the building stands on the exact spot where Zechariah’s house was located is perhaps to say too much. In fact, we are not sure of a correspondence that remains, in this as in many other cases, difficult to identify precisely. The only information that can be drawn from the Gospel of Luke about the birth of John the Baptist is that which speaks of a “mountainous region, in a city of Judah” (Lk 1:39). Other details suggest a rather small town, since Elizabeth, as soon as she had conceived, “kept herself hidden” (Lk 1:23). Nothing more.
It is a rather late tradition, begun in the sixth century and established after the eighth to affirm that it is to Ain Karim that the birth of John the Baptist and the cycle of related events is venerated: the Visitation, the intonation of the Benedictus, the massacre of the innocents …
St. John the Baptist on mount
Relying on this tradition, you can enter the sanctuary by seeing the site of the house of Zechariah, where John the Baptist was born. The rather small size of the building can impress. These small proportions are due to the fact that in the Ottoman age the building complex, much larger than the church, was reduced to a stable. Only one chapel survived, respected by the Muslims, of which the Franciscans were able to return to permanent possession by 1666.
The church stands on a pre-existing complex of buildings, intended for worship in the Crusader age and, even earlier, already by the Byzantines. Excavations of the Byzantine remains have shown that under the church stood, in Roman times, an oil mill, proving that this village was inhabited at the time of Jesus.
The ownership of the building, in Franciscan hands since the seventeenth century, was initially assumed by the Crown French. After a short time, however, it was the Spanish royal family that exercised a role of important protection towards the site, and even today the Church of the Nativity with its monastery belongs to the royal house of Spain. It is for this reason that in the building there are large legacies from Spanish artistic backgrounds: paintings by El Greco or the school of Murillo, Valencian majolica… this is what can be found within today’s Ain Karim complex.
Come and visit the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist at Ain Karim!