Unlike most of the world, God does not throw away old people. Nor does God assign women to lesser or unimportant roles.
We don’t know how old Elizabeth is, but she is past child-bearing years. Happily married to a priest named Zechariah, her only regret is that she is childless. In those times, infertility was seen as the fault of the woman (why am I not surprised?). And when there was a divine intervention, it was a clue that a child with a sacred purpose was to be born.
Both Zechariah and Elizabeth are from the line of Aaron, the traditional order of priests within Israel. By lot, Zechariah is chosen one day for the high honor of burning incense at the altar in the temple at Jerusalem in preparation for the sacrifice of a spotless lamb on behalf of the nation.
Luke does not say where Elizabeth is when Zechariah disappears into the inner sanctum. She may be in the Court of Women, praying. She might be at home making dinner, sewing vestments, or resting. Chances are, she’s probably having a calmer moment than did her husband when suddenly confronted by God’s holy messenger, Gabriel.
Imagine the flourish, and Zechariah’s surprise, when Gabriel appeared, on the right side of the altar. (Not the left…in the Bible, the right side is the place of honor.) He most likely suspects that the form is a heavenly being, but knows no more.
The angel is blunt. “Your prayers have been answered. Your wife will bear a son.” (Luke 1:13)
Zechariah stands speechless. Such a thought has been his lifelong dream, but who is this creature?
“His name will be John, and he will point his people to the Lord their God. You shall raise him as one set apart by God. He will be a holy man.” (Luke 1:13-16)
Ah, God believes in old women and their capabilities, but Zechariah is skeptical, much like Abraham was when God’s messengers said that Sarah would bear a child in her old age.
“I am an old man,” he protests, “and my wife is getting on in years!” (Luke 1:18)
“Fine,” says Gabriel. “Don’t believe me. I’m making you mute until after the baby is born because of your unbelief. That way you won’t have any trouble keeping your thoughts to yourself.”
Whoa. Impressive angel.
Despite being in God’s penalty zone, Zechariah is able to communicate to Elizabeth the good news: that they will be parents. Elizabeth, God bless her (and this is probably why God chose her), rejoices without question, in full trust.
Several months later, she hears a knock at her door: it is her cousin, young Mary of Nazareth, breathless because of the long trek. Fleeing from her home, she has gone “with haste” to see Elizabeth. Upon hearing Mary’s voice, baby John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb—and instantly Elizabeth understands.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” cries Elizabeth. “And why has this happened, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:41-43)
Imagine Mary’s joy. Finally she is with someone who rejoices in her pregnancy and understands her pregnancy not as problematic, but as good, sacred, holy. So content is Mary that she recites the Magnificat, a glorious spoken hymn praising God. And then she stays with Elizabeth for three months, no doubt a time of both rejoicing and sharing for both mothers-to-be: one young, one old.
When John is eight days of age, his parents bring him to the temple for the traditional rite of circumcision. Those gathered round begin to name the child Zechariah, after his father.
Elizabeth speaks up, saying: “No; he is to be called John.” But her word is not enough; they check with Zechariah, still mute. Grabbing for a tablet, he confirms her statement, writing, “His name is John.”
Later known as John the Baptist, their son would spend his adult life preparing the way for his cousin Jesus: baptizing, teaching and preaching. In his early ‘30s, he was beheaded for criticizing Herod.
One hopes his mother and father had passed away by then.
Imagine the surprise Elizabeth felt when she opened her door to find Mary on her doorstep. Unlike Sarah, who laughed skeptically when she was told she would bear a child in old age, Elizabeth rejoiced in the whole process: hearing the news, anticipating the birth, and sharing in Mary’s joy.
And imagine the thump in her stomach as baby John leaped in her womb upon hearing Mary’s voice. Called to prepare the way of Jesus, his work had already started.
Over thirty years later, Jesus would ask Simon Peter, “…who do you say that I am?” Peter would answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16; Luke 9:20). The woman at the well would ask almost the same thing: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29)
This, then, is the earliest confession in the New Testament—initiated by wee John and spoken by Elizabeth: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…the mother of my Lord comes to me…!”
We do not know anything of John’s childhood, other than he was raised a nazarite: one commissioned by God for a sacred role. But we do know this: his mother loved him dearly, and was delighted to be such a key part of God’s unfolding plan.
What did Elizabeth say?
“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:25
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:42-45
But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” Luke 1:60
What might we learn from Elizabeth?
- Calls to serve God can come at any age.
- Patience can be rewarding; miracles can happen.
- Virtues such as faith, joy and bravery can indeed be passed onto a child.
- Joy is contagious.
- Elizabeth had been waiting on God for most of her adult life, hoping to have a child. Such attentive waiting was perhaps one reason why God chose her to bear John. What other traits did she have that caused God to call her, late in life, to the vocation of motherhood?
- Elizabeth and Mary were soul mates as well as cousins. Have you known such women in your life? What traits would you use to describe them?
- C.S.Lewis titled his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. What joys has God surprised you with in your life?
- Consider how you have been able to let go of your children, or other loved ones, into God’s hands when the time is right. What has God done with their lives that you might not have envisioned?
Copy excerpted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, 2014
Photo Credit: Barbara Dundon, St. Jude’s Episcopal Parish, Ocean View, Hawaii.