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
the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the
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
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
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)
Return to "Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem"