The city of Juda
7.5km south-west of Jerusalem
Ein Karem: Home of John the Baptist and Place of the Visitation
The charming village of Ein Karem, situated on the western slopes of Jerusalem, is a popular destination for both pilgrims and locals alike, with its churches and monasteries, romantic cafes and restaurants, and green hills perfect for hiking.
The site is known as far back as the time of the prophet Jeremiah, who exhorted the children of the tribe of Benjamin to “set up a signal-fire in Beit ha-Kerem” as foreign invaders were approaching Jerusalem (Jeremiah 6:1). Yet for Christian pilgrims, Ein Karem has special significance as the home town of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, and the place of the Visitation, where Mary the mother of Jesus visited her cousin Elizabeth before John’s birth.
Our first stop is the spring which gave its name to the ancient village (Ein Karem means spring of the vineyard). It is also known as Mary’s Spring, because, according to Christian tradition, the Blessed Virgin stopped here to drink while visiting her cousin.
The Nativity of St John the Baptist confronts us with a most tragic and most mysterious personality of the New and of the Old Testament, of one who stands on the threshold of the two, stands there as a prophet. A prophet is not one who predicts the future; a prophet is one who spoken God’s own words. And such he was. We know from the Gospel according to Saint Mark that he was, according to Isaiah’s prophesy, a Voice shouting in the desert. He had so identified with his message that he was no longer a man proclaiming it — he was t h e message, resounding through a man who had no existence apart from his total surrender to God, total gift of self. And in that he was fulfilling what his own parents have done.
His parents were old, they could have no children any more, and John was born of them as a gift of grace. He was not born of human desire, he was born as an act of God. And having received him as a gift of God, they brought him back to God as a perfect offering. In the liturgy we say, Thine of Thine own we offer unto Thee: Thine, John, a child, given, returned to God.
And throughout his life he fulfilled his mission of one who was a gift of God not only to his parents, but, to everyone who needed to be prepared to meet the Lord and God incarnate. But here again, his role was both central and almost inconspicuous; he proclaimed God’s ways, he brought people to repentance, that is to come back to God, to turn away from everything which made them prisoners of the earth; but at the same time he knew, and he asserted himself that his vocation was to diminish so that Christ should grow in the consciousness and within the lives of people. And his all life was that of one who makes straight the crooked ways, who makes smooth the rough paths, who opens the doors for Christ to enter into the lives of men.
We can give thought to this; because every parent, when a child is expected, every parent who prays with all faith and all longing for a child to be given must realise that very seldom do they think of the eternal value of the child that may be given them. All parents think of what a child would be in earthly terms, of the success of his life, of his greatness, perhaps, among men; but who does think that the child whom they beg to receive from God is to be offered to Him and to everyone else; and this at the cost of their generosity and faith, and also at the cost of his own life, because that is our way: we must diminish so that Christ may grow.
And this applies to every Christian, but more particularly, to every priest: what temptation is it for us to hope that we will be the one who will bring salvation to those who are lost, instead of realising that there is but one Saviour, and that all we can do is to make it possible for another person to meet their Saviour. Our vocation, our glorious vocation in to bring a person to Christ and to be forgotten in a way in which people of Sihar said to the Samaritan woman: It is to longer because of your testimony that we believe: we have seen Him now ourselves… Her testimony was essential because it brought them to Christ; but when they have met Christ, they needed nothing else.
We must be prepared both to give our lives so that everyone around us might find Christ, find his way; we mist make smooth the way of Christ into people’s lives, and hearts, and minds. But we must be prepared in the process to be more and more irrelevant until in the end Christ alone fills all the space.
And a last thing. We know from the Gospel of the end. Before he died, he, who have been the Voice of God resounding in the wilderness, the one who shook hearts, and transformed wills and lives, is suddenly faced with his own death, and a doubt: was He, Whom I proclaimed, truly the Saviour, the One Whom we expected? If He was, then all his life was meaningful and redeemed, and his death a last gift he could offer to God; but hadn’t he been mistaken, hadn’t he been in an illusion? And he send his disciples to Christ to ask: Are You the One Whom we expected? And Christ gave to the prophet the answer of a prophet; He did not deprive him of the heroism of believing; He told to John’s disciples, ‘Tell him what you see: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf can hear and the poor proclaim the Gospel: the good news of the Kingdom that has come…’ And this is all that John the Baptist heard from his Master; he was not deprived by Him of his faith; in an ultimate heroic act of faith he accepted death because he knew within himself the truth of his life and the meaning of his death.
Let us reflect on ourselves in the context of John. John is great, and we are small; John was holy, and we are sinful, and yet, the same problems are within our lives, the same attitudes of mind, the same tasks — let us learn from him to give our lives to God and to our neighbour unreservedly, to be nothing but God’s word and not our own word; not to seek to save, but to bring to the Saviour; and all this gladly, gratefully to be prepared to wane away, to be forgotten, to become irrelevant because the only relevant thing should be that those whom we love may meet the Living God, and find salvation in Him. Amen.