It all begins with a Jewish priest, Zechariah, who lived when Herod was king of Judea. Zechariah was a member of the priestly order of Abijah. His wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God's eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord's commandments and regulations.
They had no children because Elizabeth was barren, and now they were both very old.
One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week.
As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and burn incense in the Lord's presence.
While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.
Zechariah was in the sanctuary when an angel of the Lord appeared, standing to the right of the incense altar.
Zechariah was overwhelmed with fear.
But the angel said, "Don't be afraid, Zechariah! For God has heard your prayer, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son! And you are to name him John.
You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice with you at his birth,
for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or hard liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth.
And he will persuade many Israelites to turn to the Lord their God.
He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah, the prophet of old. He will precede the coming of the Lord, preparing the people for his arrival. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will change disobedient minds to accept godly wisdom."
Zechariah said to the angel, "How can I know this will happen? I'm an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years."
Then the angel said, "I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news!
And now, since you didn't believe what I said, you won't be able to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly come true at the proper time."
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah to come out, wondering why he was taking so long.
When he finally did come out, he couldn't speak to them. Then they realized from his gestures that he must have seen a vision in the Temple sanctuary.
He stayed at the Temple until his term of service was over, and then he returned home.
Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months.
"How kind the Lord is!" she exclaimed. "He has taken away my disgrace of having no children!"
In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee,
to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David.
Gabriel appeared to her and said, "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you! "
Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.
"Don't be frightened, Mary," the angel told her, "for God has decided to bless you!
You will become pregnant and have a son, and you are to name him Jesus.
He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.
And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!"
Mary asked the angel, "But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin."
The angel replied, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.
What's more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she's already in her sixth month.
For nothing is impossible with God."
Mary responded, "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true." And then the angel left.
A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town
where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth.
At the sound of Mary's greeting, Elizabeth's child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, "You are blessed by God above all other women, and your child is blessed.
What an honor this is, that the mother of my Lord should visit me!
When you came in and greeted me, my baby jumped for joy the instant I heard your voice!
You are blessed, because you believed that the Lord would do what he said."
Mary responded, "Oh, how I praise the Lord.
How I rejoice in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and now generation after generation will call me blessed.
For he, the Mighty One, is holy, and he has done great things for me.
His mercy goes on from generation to generation, to all who fear him.
His mighty arm does tremendous things! How he scatters the proud and haughty ones!
He has taken princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.
And how he has helped his servant Israel! He has not forgotten his promise to be merciful.
For he promised our ancestors -- Abraham and his children -- to be merciful to them forever."
Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then went back to her own home.