Holy Land – Ein Kerem, the place of the Birth of John the Baptist.
The picturesque village of Ein Kerem (Karem), is nestled 7.5 km south west side of Jerusalem in the mountains. This village goes back to the Canaanite period(the Late Bronze Age, 1550-1200 B.C.), which evolved around the spring that gave its name (Ein Kerem – “the spring of the vineyard”).
According to tradition it is the birthplace of John the Baptist. Five churches and monasteries are located around the village in this Judean town. Two of them are of great significance in the New Testament; St. John’s (birthplace of John) and the Church of the Visitation (named after Virgin Mary’s visited to the house of John the Baptist.
People often ask why are there two sites linked to John the Baptist? It is believed that Zechariah and Elizabeth had two houses in Ein Karem. This is not to be understood as some fancy mansion but rather modest dwellings. Their usual residence was in the valley but apparently they also had a cooler ‘summer house’, high on a hillside which allowed them to escape the heat and humidity.
The summer house is believed to be where the pregnant Elizabeth “remained in seclusion for five months” (Luke 1:24) and where Mary visited her. The house in the valley is where John the Baptist was born. It is here that Zechariah finally regained his power of speech after his son was born, when he obediently wrote on a writing tablet that the baby’s name was to be John.
The village is also famous for it is linked to another tradition. This was the village that was the source of stones used to build The Second Jewish Temple, and according to archaeological finds existed already prior to the Roman period. The site is also identified as “Beit Hakerem” from the Israelite period (Jeremiah 6,1): “O ye children of Benjamin, gather yourselves to flee out of the midst of Jerusalem, and blow the trumpet in Tekoa, and set up a sign of fire in Bethhaccerem”.
Church of the Nativity of St John
This is identifiable by its tall tower topped by a round spire. It is also called “St John in the mountains”, a reference to the “hill country” of the Scripture. The church combines remnants of many periods. An early church on this site was used by Muslim villagers for their livestock before the Franciscans recovered it in the 17th century. The Franciscans built the present church with the help of the Spanish monarchy. This accounts for the blue tiles that dominate the Church.
The high altar is dedicated to St John. To the right is Elizabeth’s altar. To the left are steps leading down to a natural grotto which are identified as John’s birthplace and believed to be part of his parents’ home. A chapel beneath the porch contains two tombs. An inscription in a mosaic panel reads, in Greek, “Hail martyrs of God”. Whom it refers to is unknown though some suggest they are the tombs of Elizabeth and Zechariah.
Church of the Visitation
Completed in 1955 to a design by Antonio Barluzzi, the artistically decorated Church of the Visitation built over the site of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s summer house is considered one of the most beautiful of all the Gospel sites in the Holy Land.
To reach the Church you will find yourself trudging up a flight of steps which I must assure you are worth it. The façade of the Church is dominated with a beautiful depiction in mosaic of The Virgin Mary’s visit to Elizabeth accompanied by the angels. Like many Churches in the Holy Land this Church is commemorated on two levels.
The courtyard is decorated with ceramic plaques recalling the canticle of Mary; the ‘Magnificat’ (Luke 1:46-55) in some 50 languages. Look also for the beautiful statues of Mary and Elizabeth on the right hand side as you enter the courtyard.
In the lower chapel, a vaulted passage leads to an old well. An ancient tradition asserts that a spring joyfully burst out of the rock here when Mary greeted Elizabeth. A huge stone set in a niche is known as the Stone of Hiding. According to an ancient tradition, the stone opened to provide a hiding place for the baby John during Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents — an event depicted in a painting on the wall.
Take some time off to look at the paintings on the wall, they are breath-taking.
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.