Owned by the Franciscans, this church contains a grotto where tradition holds Jesus’ baptizer was born, and also part of the home of Zachariah and Elizabeth. Steps down to the cave reveal a Byzantine mosaic. The other John the Baptist Church, built in 1894, is mostly deserted.
Bronze statue of Mary and Elizabeth; photo courtesy Travelujah
Another impressive Franciscan site is the Sanctuary of the Visitation recognized by the bronze statues of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, depicted as pregnant with John the Baptist. After a three-month stay, Mary returned to Nazareth, only to return to Bethlehem later to give birth to Jesus. Note the alcove which contains a boulder behind which Elizabeth hid John from Herod’s legionnaires in an infanticide echoing Pharaoh’s edict and Moses. (Jesus and Mary escaped Herod’s murderous wrath by fleeing to Egypt.)
The grotto is considered the most sacred site in the church. The present church was built on the ruins of the original Byzantine church – parts of which still are part of the present church. The church was first built by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. The Franciscans took over the church in 1674 and the present church was built in the second half of the 19th century on the remnants of earlier Byzantine and Crusader churches. Zechariah’s prayer when John was born, a recorded in scripture, is written on the walls that surround the garden outside the church.
It is believed to be built over the birthplace of John and part of the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Inside the church are the remains of an ancient mosaic floor and a cave where, according to Christian tradition, John the Baptist was born.