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THE STORY OF THE ANGEL BY THE ALTAR

At the time when the story of the New Testament begins, the land of
Israel, called also the land of Judea, was ruled by a king named Herod.
He was the first of several Herods, who at different times ruled either
the whole of the land, or parts of it. But Herod was not the highest
ruler. Many years before this time, the Romans, who came from the city
of Rome in Italy, had won all the lands around the Great Sea, the sea
which we call the Mediterranean; and above king Herod of Judea was the
great king of Rome, ruling over all the lands, and over the land of
Judea among them. So Herod, though king of Judea, obeyed his overlord,
the emperor at Rome. At the time when this story begins, the emperor at
Rome was named Augustus Csar.

At this time, the land where the Jews lived was full of people.
Jerusalem was its largest city, and in Jerusalem was standing the Temple
of the Lord, which king Herod had lately built anew, taking the place of
the old Temple built very many years before, which had long needed
repair. There were also many other large cities besides Jerusalem. In
the south was Hebron among the mountains; on the shore of the Great Sea
were Gaza, and Joppa, and Csarea; in the middle of the land were
Shechem and Samaria; and in the north were Nazareth, and Cana; down by
the shore of the Sea of Galilee were Tiberias, and Capernaum, and
Bethsaida. Far up in the north, at the foot of snowy Mount Hermon, was
another Csarea; but so that it might not be confused with Csarea upon
the seacoast this city was called Csarea-Philippi, or “Philip’s
Csarea,” from the name of one of Herod’s sons.

One day, an old priest named Zacharias was leading the service of
worship in the Temple. He was standing in front of the golden altar of
incense, in the Holy Place, and was holding in his hand a censer, or
cup, full of burning coals and incense; while all the people were
worshipping in the court of the Temple, outside the court of the
Priests, where the great altar of burnt-offering stood.

Suddenly, Zacharias saw an angel from the Lord, standing on the right
side of the altar of incense. He felt a great fear when he saw this
strange being with shining face; but the angel said to him:

“Do not be afraid, Zacharias; for I have come from the Lord to bring
good news. Your wife Elizabeth shall have a son, and you shall name him
John. You shall be made glad, for your son John shall bring joy and
gladness to many. He shall be great in the sight of the Lord; and he
shall never taste wine nor strong drink as long as he lives; but he
shall be filled with God’s Holy Spirit. He shall lead many of the
people of Israel to the Lord, for he shall go before the Lord in the
power of Elijah the prophet, as was promised by Malachi, the last of the
old prophets. He shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,
and those who are disobeying the Lord to do his will.”

As Zacharias heard these words, he was filled with wonder, and could
hardly believe them true. He was now an old man, and his wife Elizabeth
was also old; so that they could not expect to have a child. He said to
the angel:

“How shall I know that your words are true, for I am an old man, and my
wife is old?”

“I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God,” said the angel. “And
I was sent from the Lord to speak to you, and to bring you this good
news. But because you did not believe my words, you shall become dumb,
and shall not be able to speak, until this which I have said comes to
pass.”

All this time the people outside in the court were wondering why the
priest stayed so long in the Temple. When at last he came out, they
found that he could not speak a word; but he made signs to them, to tell
them that he had seen a vision in the Temple.

After the days of his service were over, Zacharias went to his own home,
which was near Hebron, a city of the priests, among the mountains in
the south of Judea. When his wife Elizabeth found that God was soon to
give her a child, she was very happy, and praised the Lord.

About six months after Zacharias saw the vision in the Temple, the same
angel Gabriel was sent from the Lord to a city in the part of the land
called Galilee, which was in the north. The city to which the angel was
sent was Nazareth. There the angel found a young girl named Mary, who
was a cousin to Elizabeth. Mary was soon to be married to a good man who
had sprung from the line of king David, though he was not himself a
king, nor a rich man. He was a carpenter, living in Nazareth, and his
name was Joseph. The angel came into the room where Mary was, and said
to her: “Hail, woman favored by the Lord; the Lord is with you!”

Mary was surprised at the angel’s words, and wondered what they could
mean. Then the angel spoke again, and said: “Do not be afraid, Mary. The
Lord has given to you his favor, and has chosen you to be the mother of
a son whose name shall be Jesus, which means ‘salvation,’ because he
shall save his people from their sins. He shall be great, and shall be
called the Son of God; and the Lord shall give to him the throne of his
father David. He shall be a king, and shall reign over the people of
God forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

But Mary could not see how all this was to come to pass. And the angel
said to her:

“The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High God
shall be over you; and the child which you shall have shall be called
holy, the Son of God.”

Then the angel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was soon to have a
child, through the power of the Lord. And when Mary heard all this, she
said: “I am the servant of the Lord, to do his will. Let it be to me as
you have said.”

When the angel had given his message and had gone away, Mary rose up in
haste and made a journey to the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth. When
Elizabeth saw Mary, she was filled with the Spirit of the Lord, and
said:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed among men shall be your son!
And why is it that the mother of my Lord comes to visit me? Blessed is
the woman who believed that the promise of the Lord to her shall be made
true!”

Then Mary was filled with the Spirit of the Lord, and broke out into a
song of praise. She stayed with Elizabeth for nearly three months, and
then went again to her own home at Nazareth.

As the angel had said, to the aged woman Elizabeth was given a son.
They were going to name him Zacharias, after his father. But his mother
said: “No, his name shall be John.”

“Why,” they said, “none of your family have ever been named John!”

They asked his father Zacharias, by signs, what name he wished to be
given to the child. He asked for something to write upon; and when they
brought it, he wrote, “His name is John.” Then all at once, the power to
hear and to speak came back to Zacharias. He spoke, praising and
blessing God; and he sang a song of thanks to God, in which he said:

“You O child, shall be called a prophet of the Most High; to go before
the Lord, and to make ready his ways.”

When John was growing up, they sent him out into the desert on the south
of the land, and there he stayed until the time came for him to preach
to the people; for this child became the great prophet John the Baptist.

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