The Story in the Bible
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. He had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they both were well advanced in years.
Now it happened, while he was performing the priest's office before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to enter into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole crowd of people were praying outside at the hour of incense. An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your request has been heard, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have joy and gladness; and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord, their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,' and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
Zechariah said to the angel, "How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years." The angel answered him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And look, you will be silent and not able to speak, until the day that these things will happen, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time."
The people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering why he was delayed in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple. He continued making signs to them, and remained mute. It happened, when the days of his service were fulfilled, he departed to his house. After these days Elizabeth, his wife, conceived, and she hid herself five months, saying, "Thus has the Lord done to me in the days in which he looked at me, to take away my disgrace among people."
Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah, and entered into the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. It happened, when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, that the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She called out with a loud voice, and said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For look, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord."
Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked at the humble state of his servant girl. For look, from now on all generations will call me blessed. For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for generations of generations on those who fear him. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down princes from their thrones. And has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty. He has given help to Israel, his servant, that he might remember mercy, As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever."
Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her house.
Now the time that Elizabeth should give birth was fulfilled, and she brought forth a son. Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy towards her, and they rejoiced with her. It happened on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him Zechariah, after the name of the father. His mother answered, "Not so; but he will be called John." They said to her, "There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name." They made signs to his father, what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, "His name is John." And they were all amazed.
His mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God. Fear came on all who lived around them, and all these sayings were talked about throughout all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them laid them up in their heart, saying, "What then will this child be?" The hand of the Lord was with him.
His father, Zechariah, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and worked redemption for his people; and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets who have been from of old), salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; to show mercy towards our fathers, to remember his holy covenant, the oath which he spoke to Abraham, our father, to grant to us that we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, should serve him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to make ready his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dawn from on high will visit us, to shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death; to guide our feet into the way of peace."
The child was growing, and becoming strong in spirit, and was in the desert until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
The History behind an Elizabeth and Zechariah in the Christmas Story
Elizabeth was Mary's cousin and a descendant of the Priest families of Israel and her father was a temple priest. Zechariah was also a temple priest. This may have been because he was married to the daughter of a priest rather than coming from a family of priests. He was thought of as a very holy and kind man, although because he came from a small village some priests though of him as a bit of a 'village hick'. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth would have been over 60 when this story took place, because people didn't think you could have children after the age of 60. Not having any children was a big social problem and sometimes seen as a neglect of a Priest's religious duty!
Zechariah was not a very important priest in the temple and this was the first time that he had the very important job of sprinkling incense on the altar to burn it. At this place in the Jewish service only Zechariah, as the incense priest, would have been in this part of the temple. His role was to pour the incense onto the golden altar and then bow in worship to God and then leave that part of the temple and say the final prayer of the service. Zechariah poured the incense on to the altar but before he could bow and leave, an angel appeared by the altar. In all the history of the Jewish religion, an angel had never appeared to someone in that part of the temple. The angel was Gabriel, the same angel that had visited Mary. If you'd like to know more about the angel Gabriel and his role as God's chief messenger, go to the section on whychristmas?com's sister site whyangels?com about Gabriel.
The name John (Jehochanan or Jochanan) means 'The Lord is Gracious'. He was to be called this because God had been kind to Elizabeth and Zechariah, giving them a child. Gabriel's words to Zechariah meant that when John was a man, he would tell the people about Jesus. Zechariah didn't really believe the angel and asked him to prove this to him, so Gabriel made Zechariah dumb, until he believed what the angel had said to him.
The other priests, waiting outside that part of the temple, would have wondered what was happening because Zechariah had taken much longer than he should have done to pour the incense. When he came out, they knew something had happened because he couldn't speak the final prayer.
Elizabeth did become pregnant as the angel had told Zechariah. She stayed in hiding for the first five months, because people might not have believed that she could become pregnant.
The words that Elizabeth spoke to Mary when they met, show that Elizabeth knew that Mary had a very important baby growing inside her; and that her baby would also have something to do with Mary's baby. The words that Mary said in reply are known as the 'Magnificat' and are a 'thank you' and worship prayer to God. When Mary left Elizabeth and Zechariah and went home to Nazareth, Elizabeth would have been about nine months pregnant and Mary would have been about three months pregnant. Mary may have gone home then because she did not want to get involved with the publicity of John's birth.
So it would not have been long after this that Elizabeth did give birth to John. When it was time to name the baby, it was natural for the family to think that it would be called Zechariah after his father, as this was normally how baby boys were named. But Elizabeth knew that he had to be called John. The family would have doubted this, so they asked the still dumb Zechariah what he should be called. As soon as he wrote down John, as the angel had said, he could speak again.
The prayer that Zechariah said then was the same one that he should have said when he came out of the temple but was unable to say. Now Zechariah could see what the words really meant. Christians believe these words are about Jesus.
There is an excellent article on the dating of Christmas based on the dates of Zechariah's experience, on the blog of theologian, Ian Paul.