Were today not Sunday, we would be celebrating the feast of Saints Elizabeth and Zachary, the parents of Saint John the Baptist. I want to tell you just a little bit about them this morning, for together with their son John, Elizabeth and Zachary can be said to have the unique distinction of being the final prophets of God’s Old Covenant with His chosen people. The represent a sort of “changing of the guard” between the Old Testament and the New.
Zachary was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, and thus a priest of the Mosaic Law. Saint Luke tells us that he was of the priestly family of Abia, whose duty it was to minister for one week , twice a year, in the Temple of Jerusalem, the one place in the ancient world where the Shekinah—the Presence of God—dwelt within the veils of the Holy of Holies—somewhat as our Lord dwells in the tabernacles of traditional Catholic churches. The priests were responsible for the offering of animal sacrifices, the sacrifices of wheaten breads and flour, and the offering of fragrant incense.
Zachary lived with his wife, Elizabeth—who was also a member of one of the priestly families, descended from Aaron—in the town of Ain Karim, a suburb of Jerusalem, on the west, and a little to the south. Elizabeth was a “kinswoman” of the Blessed Virgin Mary, perhaps her cousin, although the language of her people did not carefully distinguish the degrees of relationship. Since Mary was of the kingly house of David, there had to have been some intermarriage in the family background—altogether fitting, for we speak of Mary’s Son as being “both king and priest.”
Saint Luke tells us that in the course of offering incense to God, Zachary was greeted by the Angel Gabriel and informed that he and Elizabeth would soon have a child, even though they had been previously unable, and she was past the usual age of childbirth. Zachary was incredulous, demand of Gabriel, “How shall I know this?” and was punished for his disbelief by being struck dumb until the circumcision of the baby whose divinely appointed name was “John.”
Mary, to whom the Angel Gabriel also appeared, but who accepted his word with no more than a question as to how her conception could take place, “for she did not know man”—this same Mary, told of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, “went with hast into the hill country,” some seventy-odd miles to the south of her home in Nazareth. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth was, itself, prophetic and the fulfillment of prophecy. The Angel Gabriel had predicted that John would be “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” And, in fact, when Elizabeth heard Mary greet her, “the babe in her womb leapt, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. As Mary had been sanctified from the first moment of her conception, John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth were filled with grace, through the proximity of their Savior in the womb of Mary. As a prophetess, Elizabeth announced that “the mother of her Lord had come to her.”
Elizabeth also seemed to know the name revealed for her son by the Angel, for on the occasion of his circumcision, she insisted that “he shall be called John” even though they had no relatives by this name. When the neighbors turned to Zachary, he wrote on a writing tablet “John is his name.” And from that moment, Zachary’s speech was restored.
His speech was restored, and immediately he began to prophesy, giving us the canticle that is recited every morning at the Office of Lauds, the Benedíctus.
Indeed, Zachary’s prophecy was on the mark, for at the beginning of our Lord’s public life we encounter John—priest and prophet—preaching repentance in the desert, baptizing in the waters of the Jordan, and preparing the crowds for the One who would “baptize them with the Holy Ghost and with fire,” not many days hence.
After living lives “just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame,” it is assumed that Elizabeth and Zachary died holy deaths while John was yet young. Apart from sacred Scripture, some claim that Zachary was murdered at the Temple for refusing to give up the whereabouts of John during the evil King Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents, and that Elizabeth struggled in her old age to carry him up a mountain where God protected His prophet for future struggles. John himself, we know to have died—a prophet put to death for “speaking truth unto power”—his head on a plate for reminding Herod Antipas of the moral truth that it was unlawful for him to have his brother’s wife.
After Elizabeth, and Zachary, and John there would be no more prophets of the Old Covenant. John would yield to Jesus; the bloody priesthood of Aaron would yield to the Order of Melchesidech and the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass. The extremely rare graces given to John in the womb and to his mother alone were the seed of the graces which are now abundantly available in the Sacrament of Baptism. Like the seed which must die to bring forth a new plant, the Old Covenant died to bring forth the New.
As always, we must learn from the lives of the saints. By modern standards we know relatively little about these three. That John was a martyr we know with assurance; his father, possibly. Certainly they were all three dedicated to bringing the truth of Christ into the world, even in the face of great danger. We can emulate them and their good example, hoping that when we stand at the gates of judgment, Saint Luke will say about us as he said about them: that we were “just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame.”
 As the entire story of Zachary and Elizabeth is told in Luke i, further footnotes are omitted.
 Although the priesthood of Christ is said to be “according to the order of Melchesidech” rather than that of Aaron. See Catholic Encyclopedia s.v. “Elizabeth,” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05387b.htm.
 Luke iii: 16.
 Mark vi: 17-29.