The Visitation: Don’t forget Elizabeth!

Between the dramatic stories of how the angel Gabriel appeared first to Zechariah and then to Mary, Luke mentions that Mary paid a three month long visit to Elizabeth, one of  her blood relatives and Zechariah’s wife. Although artists have painted or otherwise portrayed The Visitation for centuries, it is all too easy to read right past it. So let’s give Elizabeth her due.

Luke says she and her husband were blameless, but they may not have looked blameless to the rest of the people in their community. After all, the old priest Zechariah had never been chosen to light the incense in the temple. He and his elderly wife had no children. Surely God would not neglect them without good reason.

Can’t you imagine the townspeople trying to figure out their sin, and triumphantly telling them the latest theory? After all, haven’t we all either been the victim or the teller of that kind of gossip, or at least heard it? We all know Elizabeth. We may even be Elizabeth, if we serve God as faithfully as we know how, all the while feeling the emptiness of a fervent prayer that has so far been met only with divine silence.

One day, Elizabeth saw Zechariah off to Jerusalem to serve another week as priest. Neither one had any reason to suspect that this time of service would be different from any other. But Zacharias returned speechless. He had drawn the lot and gained the honor that had gone to younger priests for so long. An angel had appeared with news of an additional blessing: Elizabeth would bear him a son who would prepare for the coming of the Lord himself. Unfortunately, he had not responded to the news with joy. Years of bitterness welled up and he asked Gabriel for proof that he was telling the truth!

Sure enough, Elizabeth was soon pregnant. After about six months, Mary showed up on her doorstep. Luke does not tell us if Mary had sent word ahead. He does not even tell us if Elizabeth knew in advance that Mary, too, was pregnant. What is a fine, upstanding church member so blessed by God supposed to do when an unwed pregnant girl shows up for a visit? How many over the centuries would have self-righteously thrown her out on the street, relative or not?

As soon as Mary set foot in the house and called Elizabeth’s name, the unborn John the Baptist leaped within his mother’s womb. Was that the first time she had felt him move? Maybe, but it really doesn’t matter. Luke says that she was filled with the Holy Spirit. Even though Luke is in the New Testament, it helps to remember that the God did not proclaim the New Covenant until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Since Pentecost, anyone at all can be filled with the Holy Spirit so long as they know Jesus as Lord and Savior. Before then, under the Old Covenant, Elizabeth was one of only a few people to be filled.

Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognized that her miracle son had acknowledged Mary’s miracle son as the greater. She knew by revelation that Mary was the mother of her Lord and felt tremendously honored to have her come to visit. Then she pronounced a special blessing. (John, by the way, would have to wait to receive his own revelation when Jesus came to be baptized. Until then, he had no clue of the identity of the One whose way he was preparing.)

When Elizabeth greeted Mary as the mother of her Lord, she pronounced a special blessing. Consider how unusual that is. The Bible is full of men blessing other men, especially fathers pronouncing blessings on their sons. Giving a blessing was not a casual thing. As Isaac and Esau amply demonstrate, one who pronounced blessing could not change his mind later. It was impossible to bless someone and then transfer the blessing to someone else. And here, Elizabeth blessed Mary, the only time the Bible records a woman blessing another woman.

The blessing itself shows the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s description implies that Mary hardly had time to put her baggage on the floor of the house, and yet Elizabeth not only knew who her baby was, but also that Mary had believed Gabriel where Zechariah had not.

We could recognize Elizabeth during her long years of waiting and praying and crying over the seeming cruelty of it all. Can we recognize her in her moment of greatest sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit? We ought to. God expects no less of each of us.

For a more extended look at this wonderful woman and additional illustrations, see Nobodies of the Bible: Elizabeth and the birth of Jesus.  For more on Zechariah and Mary, see Zechariah and Mary: a Christmas study in contrasts.

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