As the high priest without gives the sign, deep silence fell on the vast throng of priests and Levites while people prostrated themselves, fell down on their faces and bent the body down to the pavement. Zachary spread the incense on the burning coals, and the smoke ascended up before the Lord of hosts, prophesying the prayers and sacrifice of Jesus and his Saints. 33
Thus Zachary offered the incense, 34 most holy and solemn Temple function. 35 "When therefore," says S. Augustine, the "father priest, trembling, stood at the divine altar, Gabriel the angel suddenly cleaving the air stood beside him, now trembling when he saw the vision standing at the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him was troubled and fear fell upon him.
But the angel said to him: "Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness and many shall rejoice at his birth." 36 The angel called him John "The Pius."
St. Augustine tells us that Zachary was a faded, withered up old man, and that was the reason he did not believe the words of Gabriel "God is mighty," who in all Jewish history was in God's ministry to comfort Hebrews with revelations of the Incarnation. 37
Thus in the Holies, the golden sanctuary with its massive gold altar foretelling the sanctuary of our churches, was revealed the birth of John the Baptist, last of the great men of the Old Testament and first Evangelist of the New Testament. He was, said Christ, the greatest man born of woman, 38 prophet, priest, preacher, rabbi and martyr, who like the great men of olden days prepared the way for Christ preached the forgiveness of sins, and baptized the Lord.
When Herod killed the Bethlehem infants, all Judea was in a ferment of fear for her children, and they hid John in a cave they show under the house where his parents lived. When John was in his twelfth year they brought him to the Temple, priests imposed their hands on him with the Taleth vestments and confirmed him, the ceremony admitting him into the ranks of the men. Then he retired to the desert west of his home where he lived on locusts and wild honey as a hermit in watchings, prayers and fastings, clothed in one garment of camel's hair.
When John was thirty he came forth from his solitude to preach. As was the custom of the Rabbis of that day he gathered twelve disciples round him—one being that Simon who wished to buy the Holy Ghost with money and who later opposed Peter in his travels and at Rome. To Jordan's banks he came in the form and spirit of Elias who centuries before had ascended to heaven on the fiery chariot of the Lord from that very spot.
Before beginning his public ministry at the age of thirty Jesus came to John at Galgal, "the Circle," where the Hebrews crossed to take possession of the Promised Land, where Josae built the monument of twelve stones in memory of the miracle of the waters sweeping south toward the Dead Sea turning back to let them cross.
There where the river sweeps round in a half circle, amid the tamarisks lining its desert shores, Jesus passed through the throngs, went down into the waters. John baptized him and told his disciples he was the "Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world," 39 and John's disciples followed from that time the Lord and became the apostles.
John still continued to preach. One day Herod Agrippa, passing from his capital, Tiberias, nestling on the western shores of Galilee, going on his way to his winter home east of the Dead Sea, passed where John was preaching. He had seduced the wife of his half brother Philip, then living in retirement in Jerusalem, divorced his own wife, daughter of Aretis the Arabian king, and was then living with that base woman, Herodias, in adultery.
Before the multitude John said it was against the law of Moses to live with his brother's wife. Stung to the quick before the people Herod had him arrested and carried to his fortress Macarius, Josephus so minutely describes as having been built in the desert where the sulphur springs burst forth from desert sands.
At Macarius Herod celebrated his birthday with a great feast for his nobles and officers, 40 and during the banquet his half-niece Salome, daughter of the woman he was living with and his half brother Philip, half clothed danced the immodest suggestive Egyptian dance, and Herod half drunk, charmed with her graces promised her, before his guests, whatever she would ask, even half his kingdom. Prompted by her adulterous mother Herodias, she asked the head of John the Baptist on a salver.
Pretending to be saddened that the banquet should be the scene of such a bloody murder, bat remembering his oath before his guests, he gave the sign to his guards standing round the banquet hall. They went down to the deep dungeon, cut off John's head, brought the ghastly trophy to the wicked woman Salome and she gave it to her mother.
All orientals honored the beard, called in Hebrew zaqan, a word found seven times in the Old Testament. God forbade the Hebrews to shave. "Nor shall you cut your hair roundwise, nor shave your beard." 41 This law was for all the people, but a special rule was laid down for priests, "Neither shall they shave their head, nor their beard, nor make incisions in their flesh." 42
All Hebrews wore long beards, which they might trim, but not shave all off, nor trim in peculiar shapes like the heathens of that time. Egyptian priests cut their hair round. Pagans, when dedicated to their gods, cut the hair in peculiar shapes, sometimes forming a circle, as Empedocles said: "God is a circle, his center is everywhere without a circumference." To express that idea they often built their temples round, like the Pantheon, the vestals' shrine Numa built, and many other temples of that time.
Heathens dedicated their hair to idols or demons, and Hebrews dedicated their hair and beard to God. Many ancient religious ceremonies we find among the heathens relating to the beard. To preserve the Hebrews from these superstitions God forbade them to shave head or beard.
The leper shaved his whole body, 43 as a sign of his disease, while the Hebrew wore a long beard as a mark of manhood, virtue, perfection, strength and wisdom.
The Nazarite "Separated" never cut his hair or beard, to show that he was dedicated to God. His hair and beard were trimmed at the door of the tabernacle, at the Nicanor Gate when his vow ended.44 This was the origin of the tonsure, a ceremony which admits a man into the ranks of the clergy of our day. Christ was the Nazarite foretold by the prophets. 45 On Monday of Passion week, he came to the Temple and received the tonsure. From apostolic custom comes down the clerical tonsure. In the early Church all the clergy wore beards, as we learn in the fathers' writings. 46 The Fourth Council of Carthage 47 rules "A cleric will not foster his hair nor shave his beard."
Among the Hebrews the beard was so honored that no one ever dared to touch it except to kiss manhood's greatest ornament as a sign of honor. Joab took Amasa by the beard to kiss it, when he stabbed him. Hamon shaved the heads and beards of David's ambassadors sent to comfort him at his father's death, and that disgrace brought on a war. 48 Arabs in ancient days shaved their beards, and cut their hair in round forms, when they dedicated themselves to Bacchus, god of drunkenness, 49 and on all these people of the Orient, for their superstitions, God's condemnation was foretold. 50
Following the Mosaic law, the beard was sacred to the Jew, and at the time of Christ all wore beards. The Jerusalem Jews of our day wear long ringlets of hair hanging down before their ears, even boys after their confirmation at twelve conform to this custom. But as a sign of sorrow they shave off the beard and cut their hair.
Arabs, sons of Abraham through Ismael, have the greatest respect for the beard, which they say God gave to distinguish men from women. They never shave. The greatest insult offered an Arabian is to cut off his beard. The longer the beard the more learned and venerable the man. Wives and children still kiss the beard as a sign of respect. They swear and make contracts by the beard; and when they ask a favor they say, "By your beard. By the life of your beard grant me this." "May God deign to guard your blessed beard." "May God pour out his blessings on your beard."
An Arab having received a serious wound in the jaw, said he would rather die than allow the doctor to shave off his beard, so the wound could be better attended. When Peter the Great of Russia ordered all his subjects to shave, he roused much opposition, and many asked their friends to bury their beard with them. Polish Jews looked on one who cut off his beard as having renounced Judaism, and the rabbis preached against shaving. Moors of Africa kiss the beard when they meet.
In our day when ceremonial visits are made in the East, a servant sprays scented water, like cologne, on the beard of the visitor 51 When the Hebrews attended banquets at the time of Christ, a servant holding a censer in his right hand, went from one guest to another and incensed the beard of each guest, swinging the censer up and down before him, so the smoke rose up through his beard. When this custom first arose we cannot find, but it was customary at all banquets and at the Passover in the time of Christ. This was the origin of the ceremony of of incensing the clergy at a High Mass.
33 See Apoc. viii. 1 to 4.
34 Luke i. 5 to 23.
35 Edersheim, Temple, 133 to 139.
36 Luke i. 12, 13, 14, etc.
37 St. Augustin, Serm. LX. in Nat. Joan. Bap., i., n. ix; Dutripon, Con. S. Scripturæ; Smith's Dict. Gabriel, John the Baptist, etc.
38 Luke vii. 28.
39 John i. 29.
40 Mark vi. 21. 22.
41 Levit. xix. 27.
42 Levit. xxi. 5.
43 Levit. xiv. 9.
44 Numb. vi. 18.
45 Gen. xlix. 26; Deut. xxxiii. 46; Lament, iv. 7, etc.
46 Clem. Alex. L. III. Pedag. C. 3. Cyprian, L. 3 ad Quirin. Epiph. Haeres, 80.
47 Caput IV.
48 I. Par. xix. 4; II. Kings x. 4.
49 Herodotus, Thalia, III. n. 8.
50 Jeremias ix. 28, xxv. 23, xlix. 32.
51 D'Arvieux, Moeurs des Arabes.