Nestled in the terraced hills southwest of Jerusalem is the village of Ein Karem, where picturesque lanes lead you to the traditional spot where Elizabeth “felt life” when she met her kinswoman Mary, and where John the Baptist was born and raised.
Luke 1:39 tells us that after the annunciation, Mary hurried to “a town in the hill country of Judah” to visit Elizabeth, who was also pregnant. Centuries ago, Christians began to mark Elizabeth’s hometown at Ein Karem, whose name means “spring of the vineyard.”
Though just a short drive from Jerusalem’s modern neighborhoods, once you arrive you can leave the everyday world behind and step back in time. You’ll still find the spring, where no doubt Elizabeth drew water for her household. If you arrive in the waning of winter you’ll see the almond trees rejoicing in their pink and white blossoms; in summer the grapevines on their terraces still bear fruit. As you watch children at play in the little village park, it’s easy to imagine John as a young boy clambering across these very slopes.
Ein Karem was less than a day’s walk from the Temple in Jerusalem to which Zechariah, John’s father, would be called to his duties as a priest. It was while serving at the altar of incense in the Temple that Zechariah saw the angel Gabriel, who informed him that his aged wife Elizabeth would give birth after years of barrenness. The shock must have caused Zechariah to forget his manners at angelic meetings! He immediately questioned the angel’s words, and so was struck voiceless until the naming ceremony at his son’s circumcision.
In the cool, restful interiors of Ein Karem’s churches you can see where ancient Christians marked the site of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, and where Mary uttered her great praise poem that begins with the words “My soul glorifies the Lord...” (Luke 1:46). Keep your Bibles open to Luke’s Gospel here, because in the gardens, quiet corners and courtyards you can also pause over the story of Elizabeth’s naming of John (Luke 1:59-60) and Zechariah’s own poem of praise and prophecy (Luke 1:67-79). Many legends surround John’s early years. One tells of his miraculous survival of the murder of the innocents by King Herod. John was only a few months older than Jesus and thus, when the order came from Herod to kill all the boys “in Bethlehem and the vicinity” (Matt. 2:16), John, too, was in mortal danger. It is said that Elizabeth managed to conceal her son in a cave (still shown to visitors) and though the soldiers came close, they unknowingly passed over his hiding place.
Ein Karem, so close to the city and yet with such a different atmosphere, is also a great draw for Israeli visitors, whom you’ll find strolling along the lanes with you, exploring the churches, browsing the little shops, savoring a cup of coffee or a meal, and just like you, enjoying a perfect interlude.