From the single promise that sent a ray of hope through the gloom of man’s forsaken spirit in paradise, falling as the returning smile of God on nature reeling under his curse, to the last message of a dying prophet, the whole tide of events converged toward age and consummation; a full manifestation of the grace which suspended the penalty of violated law. “God put forth his agencies, and calmly waited four thousand years for the accomplishment of his designs of mercy.”
It was a faint spreading of dawn that cheered the pathway of Eve; but the increasing radiance gilded the horizon of Palestine, bathing the heights on which the seers bowed in rapture, till last of all Malachi poured forth his impassioned eloquence against Israel, and slept with his fathers.
Then followed four hundred years of trial and struggle; the people could only look back on the long track of wandering, rebuke and concentrating light pointing onward to a future whose shadows were lifting, and thus become able to bear the coming sun, and welcome its illumination.
Among those who were expecting a sublime manifestation of love in the advent of Messiah, was Zacharias, a venerable priest at Jerusalem, whose wife, a descendant of Aaron, was a woman of elevated piety. (Luk 1:5-6.) They were now aged and childless. (Luk 1:7.) One evening as the fading light burnished the temple-columns, and streamed through the lofty windows upon the Mercy Seat, the Cherubim overshadowing it, and the golden altar, he passed thoughtfully through the multitude that crowded the gates of the sacred structure. His form disappeared in the Holy Place, and arrayed in his sacerdotal robes; he stood before the altar of incense, while the throng pressed into the porch to worship. Their prayer arose like the murmur of the ocean, but he was all alone by the flame of sacrifice, interceding for them. (Luk 1:8-10.) Suddenly he heard the rustling of wings, and on the oblation there came aglow more intense than the fire of his offering, and by his side he beheld an angel of the Lord in white apparel, with his face of celestial beauty beaming full upon him. He was troubled, and trembling with alarm would have shrunk away from the presence of Gabriel, but the tones of his gentle voice dispelled the rising fear, and he restored the calmness of faith. He listened with doubting surprise to the tidings, “Thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son.” (Luk 1:11-17.) Ah! he had prayed for the blessing in former years, and cherished the hope until it turned to ashes in his sad heart, while Elizabeth had made supplication till prayer seemed a mockery. He could not believe without a miraculous token, and this was added. (Luk 1:18.) But it was as though the offending lips were smitten by an unseen hand, for the angel left him speechless, and returned to the throne of God. (Luk 1:19-20.)
Zacharias turned away from the dying flame of his offering, and waving his hand to the people who had wondered at his long absence, went in silence to his dwelling. (Luk 1:21-23.) Elizabeth could not doubt the fulfilment of a promise which was expressed in tears and voiceless sighs, themselves a warning, not to limit the power of the Infinite One.
And then it was her pleasant employment to beguile the loneliness of her husband, who for her sake wore the seal of divine displeasure with cheerful piety, and affection which flowed with new and gathering strength in the deeper channel of maternal solicitude for a son connected with whose birth was “so exceeding great and precious promises.”
But the scenes of that home are unrecorded, excepting a visit from her cousin Mary, the mother of Christ; an interview inexpressibly solemn and touching The Holy Ghost was the companion of Elizabeth, and Mary carried a treasure which was the theme of ceaseless halleluiahs in Heaven. There was no jealousy, no glorying but in the Lord.
The salutation which welcomed the virgin indicates both humility of spirit and the strength of natural love; “And whence is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luk 1:42.) Mary replied in a devotional rhapsody, to Him who “putteth down the mighty in their seats, and exalteth them of low degree.” (Luk 1:52.) Three months were passed in delightful companionship. Their long conversations concerning “the consolation of Israel”—their hours of prayer around the domestic altar—their deep study of prophecy with the mute and subdued Zacharias, have no place in the memorials of earth; for none cared for these while transpiring in the “hill country of Juda.”
The streets of Jerusalem echoed the tramp of Roman soldiery, and the haughty Pharisees swept the pavement with their phylactered robes of ceremonial sanctity. The busy world moved thoughtlessly on around these solitary women, while angels were on the wing for their protection, and if their safety required it, a chariot of fire would have descended to the green summits that girded the city. At length Mary sought again the retirement of her own habitation, and Elizabeth gave birth to a son. (Luk 1:57-58.) Amid the rejoicings of friends, the child was named Zacharias after his father. His mother insisted on calling him John, according to Gabriel’s command. The matter was then referred to the aged and silent priest who was looking on; and he wrote with a stile on the waxen table, “He shall be called John.” The people were amazed at this deviation from national custom. While gazing inquiringly upon him, his speech was restored, and he praised God until his humble dwelling seemed bursting with the swelling anthem. Then followed a burning strain of prophecy, running from the earliest predictions of Messiah, to the gathering of the Gentiles under his glory, mounting upward to “the rest which remains for the people of God.” (Luk 1:59-79.)
The boyhood of John is mentioned no farther than that “he grew and waxed strong in spirit,” (Luk 1:80) but beneath his supernatural endowments and the greatness of his heraldic career, the maternal influence is clearly discernible in his lofty character. It is traceable as the waters of a stream by the lines of their coloring, long after they have entered the sea. We need no farther testimony that he neither had nor needed the angel of tradition to guard his early slumbers and guide his juvenile feet; than the saintly and gifted Elizabeth. He repeated the sentiments and nearly the language of that mother when he saw the majestic form of Jesus approaching him for baptism—“comest thou to me?” Her joy as a mother was lost in that of his sacred mission, as the Saviour’s herald awakened; so John exclaimed when he saw and listened to Christ, “This my joy is fulfilled.”
In all his ministry, it is beautifully manifest “that this ‘burning and shining light’ was kindled under the maternal wing at Hebron, as well as fanned into brilliancy by the wings of inspiration in the wilderness, that it might be a herald‐star of the Sun of Righteousness.”