The forerunner of Christ | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

The forerunner of Christ

25 June 2012 Archaeology, Culture, and other Religions

8 km from Jerusalem, in the small village of Ain Karem, still stands a shrine that preserves all the austere air of a Crusader fortress.

A long tradition brings pilgrims to this quiet and hidden location, not far from the Church of the Visitation. On entering the precinct, there are framed ceramic tiles with the Benedictus written in many languages: the praise to God announcing the coming of Christ.

"And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways".

Zechariah prophesied this, while his son John was being circumcised, eight days after his birth. The Holy Spirit inspired him to say these words, which are recited in the liturgy still today, to indicate the great task that God had given to the Baptist: to precede the Messiah proclaiming "a visit from on high of a sun that is rising".

The universal Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist on June 24th, when all the faithful come together to remember what happened at this Franciscan church. Here, to the left of the main altar, is preserved a small cave where, according to a very old tradition throughout Christendom, Zechariah lived with his wife Elizabeth. And right here, under the altar erected in the cave, their son, John the Baptist, was born.

This sanctuary has never been destroyed, despite all the conflicts in this area down the centuries. Excavations have shown the remains of churches paved with mosaics and dating back to Byzantine times, the sign of a long cultural and Christian tradition. After the Crusader period, the Muslims transformed the Church into a lodging for travellers, interrupting Christian worship for nearly four centuries. After this long interval, the Church was redeemed in 1621 by the Custodian of the Holy Land, Thomas Obicini of Novara.

Father Obicini immediately gave the order to begin restoration and finally in 1675, more than fifty years later, Christian worship was gradually resumed.
The current building dates back to 1939, from a project of the architect Barluzzi. There are three naves adorned with ceramic tiles and separated by pillars. Paintings and icons of great artistic value decorate the walls of this Basilica. The life of John the Baptist is depicted in the classic iconography that adorns the interior: the last prophet is holding a staff on which it is announced: "Here is the Lamb of God". Throughout all his life, up to death, this was his vocation: announcing the arrival of the man, the Most High, whose sandals he said he was not worthy to untie.