The holy Prophet Malachi prophesied that before the Messiah’s birth His Forerunner would appear, and would indicate His coming. The Jews therefore in awaiting the Messiah also awaited the appearance of His Forerunner.
In a city of the hills of Judea in the land of Palestine lived the righteous priest Saint Zachariah and his wife Saint Elizabeth, zealously observing the commandments of the Lord. The couple, however, had a misfortune: they remained childless in their old age, and they prayed unceasingly to God to grant them a child.
Once, when Saint Zachariah took his turn as priest at the Temple of Jerusalem, he went into the Sanctuary to offer incense. Going behind the veil of the Sanctuary, he beheld an angel of God standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
Saint Zachariah was astonished and halted in fear, but the angel said to him, “Fear not, Zachariah, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” But Zachariah did not believe the words of the heavenly messenger, and then the angel said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you the good news. Behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words….”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zachariah and they were astonished that he had not come out from the Sanctuary after so long a time. And when he did come out, he was supposed to pronounce a blessing upon the people, but could not do so because he had been struck speechless. When Zachariah explained by gestures that he was unable to speak, the people then understood that he had experienced a vision. The prophecy of the Archangel was fulfilled, and Righteous Elizabeth was delivered from her barrenness, and gave birth to John, the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord.
This came to pass fifteen months before the birth of Christ, after the vision of the Angel that Zacharias, the father of the Forerunner, saw in the Temple while he executed the priest’s office in the order of his course during the feast of the Tabernacles, as tradition bears witness. In this vision, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias and said to him, “Thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John” (Luke 1:13). Knowing that Elizabeth was barren, and that both he and she were elderly, Zacharias did not believe what the Angel told him, although he had before him the example of Abraham and Sarah, of Hannah, mother of the Prophet Samuel, and of other barren women in Israel who gave birth by the power of God. Hence, he was condemned by the Archangel to remain speechless until the fulfilment of these words in their season, which also came to pass (Luke 1:7-24).
On this day the mercy, miracles and wisdom of God are celebrated: His mercy toward the devout and righteous parents of St. John, the aged Zacharias and Elizabeth, who all their lives had wished for and begged a child from God; His miracle, that of John’s conception in the aged womb of Elizabeth; His wisdom, in the dispensation of man’s salvation. God had an especially great intention for John: namely, that he be the Prophet and Forerunner of Christ the Lord, the Savior of the world. Through His angels, God announced the births of Isaac to the childless Sarah, Samson to the childless wife of Manoah, and John the Forerunner to the childless Zacharias and Elizabeth. All of these were those for whom He had special intentions, and he foretold their birth through his angels. How could children be born of aged parents? If someone desires to understand this, he should not ask men about it, for men do not know; nor should he study natural law, for this is beyond natural law. Rather, he should turn his gaze upon the power of the Almighty God, Who created the whole world from nothing, and Who needed no parents–old or young–for the creation of the first man, Adam. Instead of being curious, let us give thanks to God, Who often reveals His power, mercy and wisdom to us in ways that are beyond natural law–in which we would be imprisoned without these special miracles of God, and would fall into despair and forgetfulness of God.
Apolytikion of Conception of the Forerunner
Rejoice, O thou barren one who hadst not borne until now; for lo, in all truth thou hast conceived the lamp of the Sun, and he shall send forth his light over all the earth, which is afflicted with blindness. Dance, O Zacharias, and cry out with great boldness: The one to be born is the blest Prophet of God Most High.
Kontakion of Conception of the Forerunner
Great Zacharias now doth rejoice with resplendence; Elizabeth his glorious yoke-mate exulteth; for she hath conceived divine John the Forerunner worthily, whom the great Archangel had announced with rejoicing, whom, as it is meet, we men revere as a sacred initiate of grace divine.
Source: oca.org / goarch.org / westserbdio.org