Since he was born into a human family, our Lord naturally had relatives. Every now and then in the New Testament the “brothers” of Jesus are mentioned. These were cousins, since He was Mary’s only child. In the language that they spoke there was no word for “cousin”, so “brother” had to do also for more distant kinsfolk.
The first relative of the Blessed Virgin to be mentioned is Elizabeth. St. Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel how the angel Gabriel appeared to her husband Zachary (Zechariah), an Old Testament priest then engaged in his priestly duties in the temple at Jerusalem, to announce that he and his wife would become the parents of St. John the Baptist.
St. Luke speaks highly of Zechariah and Elizabeth: “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” Hitherto they had had no children, and she was apparently past the normal childbearing age. Understandably, perhaps, Zechariah wondered how they could start a family at their age. Gabriel scolded him for this moment’s hesitation, and told him that he would therefore be stricken dumb until their son was born.
When Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary of Nazareth and announced that God had chosen her to mother His Son. As a guarantee of his words and of God’s power, Gabriel told Mary that her relative Elizabeth had also conceived, despite her advanced age. Mary then consented, and Jesus was formed miraculously in her womb.
One of the first things Mary did after conceiving the Son of God was to set out for the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth in “the hill country”, perhaps to the west, perhaps to the south of Jerusalem. It was a long journey from Nazareth, but Our Lady felt impelled to make it, not only out of thoughtfulness for her cousin, but also, I think, to bring the unborn Jesus for the first time into the presence of the unborn John, who was to be his forerunner thirty years later.
When the two kinswoman came face to face, the Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth that Mary was pregnant with the Son of God. “Most blessed are you among women.” Elizabeth cried out, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” At that moment her child had “leaped in her womb.” In ecstasy over her privilege, she exclaimed, “How does it happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary replied, praising God’s goodness in her great song, “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” It is also common teaching that the unborn John, at his meeting with the unborn Jesus, was cleansed of original sin.
Mary stayed about three months, departing, apparently, before the birth of St. John. When John was born, Zechariah regained his power to speak. Then he, too, uttered a magnificent hymn of praise, prophesying that his son would “go before the Lord to prepare His ways.” All who were at John’s birthing ceremonies were convinced that he was called to perform some great task for God. Indeed, Jesus would later on declare that “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”
Having recounted the birth of St. John, Luke makes no further mention of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Some of the early Fathers of the Church were persuaded that Zechariah died a martyr, but the Roman church calendar knows nothing of this. We must conclude, therefore, that the evangelists said nothing more about them because at John’s birth their unique role in our salvation was finished.
Nevertheless, the Church could not ignore these cousins of Jesus, these two persons so “righteous in the eyes of God” that they had merited to bring St. John the Baptist into the world. From ancient times SS. Elizabeth and Zechariah have been assigned a joint feastday on November 5.
–Father Robert F. McNamara