CHURCH OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST

Catholic - Franciscan Order
Located in the Jerusalem suburb of Ein Karem
[#13 on the Ein Karem map]


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"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 give him the name John.. . He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. . . And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.' "

LUKE 1:13-17

Little remains of the Byzantine sanctuary which once commemorated the birth of John the Baptist. However, unlike other houses of worship constructed over holy sites in Jerusalem, it was not destroyed by seventh-century Persian or Moslem invaders. Instead, this church was apparently ravaged 200 years earlier, during an uprising of Israel's Samaritans. Persecuted by the Byzantines, the Samaritans rebelled on several occasions by massacring Christians at prayer and devastating their chapels.
The Church of St. John the Baptist was rebuilt by the Crusaders, but after they left the Holy Land the sanctuary was either destroyed or fell into complete disrepair. A few centuries later, the Franciscan Order purchased the site and work began on its reconstruction. Most of the church was restored in 1674 with the aid of the Spanish royal family (their coat-of-arms is located above the entrance inside the sanctuary). Many of the paintings are originals, drawn by Spanish artists and donated by Spanish kings. Diverse blue-and-white tiles considered to be Spanish in style line the enormous square pillars and cover parts of the walls. Further work on the church was carried out in the nineteenth century, again with Spanish assistance. This included a new marble altar for the grotto, donated by Queen Isabella II of Spain.
Entrance to the church compound is by way of a decorative arched gateway holding two distinct symbols. To your left is the Jerusalem Cross - a large cross with equilateral arms and four tiny crosses that was adopted by some Crusaders in the Middle Ages. On your right are the intertwined arms of the Franciscan emblem.
People often consider the Jerusalem Cross to be the symbol of the Franciscans. Actually, the Franciscan symbol consists of two crossed arms - the bare one of Jesus, and the robed arm of St. Francis of Assisi. Like the hand of Jesus, Francis' hand bears a wound. Francis was the first saint to receive the stigmata (bodily marks resembling the injuries sustained by Jesus on the cross).
In the middle of the fourteenth century, Franciscans began returning to the holy sites which had been abandoned by the Crusaders. At that time Franciscans in the Holy Land adopted the Jerusalem Cross as part of their symbol. You will find the complete symbol on each of four altars inside the church.
Twenty three tile plaques cover a wall outside of the church (the 24th is located around the corner). On each panel, in different languages, is the famous prayer known as the "Benedictus". Recited daily during morning prayers, the Benedictus consists of the first words spoken by Zechariah after the birth of his son.
According to the New Testament, a Jewish priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth lived in the hill town of Judea (identified as today's Jerusalem suburb of Ein Kerem),. Barren, the couple were now too old to have children. One day, as Zechariah was burning incense in the inner sanctums of the Temple, an angel appeared. The angel told Zechariah that his wife would bear him a son and that his name was to be John.
Because Zechariah had doubts that this prophecy would come true, the angel struck him dumb. It was only at the infant's circumcision, when his father wrote on a slate that the child would be named John, that Zechariah's speech returned. He then voiced the following prayer: " 'Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people, 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 fathers 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' " (Luke 1:68-79).
Below the steps leading to the church is a basement whose windows are covered with twisted iron bars - apparently the ground floor of the Byzantine church. Peering inside, you can see artifacts discovered during nineteenth-century repairs. They include a statue of the goddess Aphrodite (probably used in pagan rituals during the Roman era) and a fragment of mosaic floor from the Byzantine sanctuary.
Nothing quite prepares you for the ornamentation inside the church, and the quantity of shiny marble. Built over Crusader ruins in basilica style, three aisles are separated by six massive square columns. The ceiling is ringed with unusually rich and vibrant stained-glass windows, and there are superb portraits just below the dome. The church is replete with fabulous works of art. Of these perhaps the most impressive is a series of unique three-dimensional gilded creations depicting the Stations of the Cross. Their wooden frames are shaped like chapels; the colors are deep, and the facial expressions intricately detailed.
Five statues dominate the church's central apse. To your left is a sculpted figure of Zechariah, clothed in the raiment of a priest of the Temple. On the other side is a statue of St. Elizabeth. Towering above them both is Mary, dressed in a blue cloak and standing between two marble pillars. On either side of the apse are statues of St. Francis and St. Clare.
Francis, renowned for his passionate commitment to the poor, renounced a wealthy family to establish a movement dedicated to charity and good works. This gentle saint is said to have called the sun and moon his brother and sister. He is often pictured preaching to the birds, who would gather around him to listen.
Clare, too, initiated a religious order. Born in 1194, she belonged to the Italian nobility. After leaving her family she lived her life according to Franciscan spirituality, and in conjunction with St. Francis founded the Order of Poor Clares.


The most revered site in the church is the grotto.

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The most revered site in the church is the grotto. Believed to be part of the home in which John the Baptist was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and perhaps even the site of his birth, it was incorporated into the church's left apse. You reach the crypt by walking through an elaborately adorned green and gold gate and descending a few marble steps. Beneath and around the altar are white marble bas reliefs illustrating biblical events. On the wall above the crypt and next to the apse is a picture of young John wearing an animal pelt; on the opposite wall is a painting of John's last moments on earth.
A wonderful little museum is located a bit further down that same wall. Pass through the door to see fabulous embroidered vestments, superb candlesticks, gold and silver vessels, splendid ancient icons, and the "comunichino": tongs used for distributing the Holy Communion to people suffering from the plague.

Visiting hours: Monday-Friday 8:00-12:00; 14:30-17:00; Sunday 9:00-12:00; 14:30-17:00 (Saturday closed)

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