After the dramatic stories of Gabriel’s appearances to Zechariah and Mary, Luke 1:39-45 describes Mary’s visit to Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth. The two women were related.
Although artists have painted or otherwise portrayed the visitation for centuries, it’s easy to read right past it. But like many minor characters, Elizabeth has a special message for us.
Mary, probably a girl of about 14, has just become pregnant as a virgin. That’s what Gabriel said. The townspeople would eventually know only that she was pregnant out of wedlock.
Gabriel had also told her that Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age. (That likely means 40, give or take a few years. Even today, women seldom have their first pregnancies past 40.) Mary decided to visit Elizabeth.
Zechariah was a priest and therefore a descendant of Aaron of the tribe of Levi. Elizabeth, too, was a descendant of Aaron. Mary was descended from David of the tribe of Judah. Yet the Bible says they were relatives. Genealogies were recorded through fathers, and men were not required to marry within their own tribe. Luke does not specify the relationship. Possibly Elizabeth was Mary’s aunt and descended both from Aaron and Judah.
Elizabeth and her shame
Luke declares that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous before the Lord. They followed the law blamelessly. Otherwise, the Bible calls only Noah and Job blameless.
Their neighbors might not have thought so. After all, they had reached old age and had no children. Zechariah had not yet had the once-in-a-lifetime honor of lighting incense in the temple for a sacrifice. Can’t you imagine the gossips trying to figure out their sin and triumphantly sharing the latest theories?
Poor Elizabeth. She did all the right things, yet God withheld from her the blessing she wanted the most. She knew the stories of Sarai, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah, other barren women who eventually bore sons. Maybe she drew comfort from them. Maybe well-meaning friends told her about those stories until she got tired of hearing them. And certainly she heard about some of whatever stories the gossips spread.
We know Elizabeth, don’t we? We might be Elizabeth. We might have victimized Elizabeth.
Who among us does not ache for some unsatisfied desire? Many of us know we’re not blameless and cry out to God to help break a bad habit or repair a relationship we helped break. We pray fervently year in and year out and, from all appearances, receive only God’s stony silence.
How long can we continue to go to church serve God cheerfully, all the while knowing the emptiness of unmet needs and desires?
Yes, we know Elizabeth. Some days she walked with God cheerfully. Other days she just went through the motions. Some days she had to battle gloom or even anger with God. Other days she just let all the negativity wash over her like an overflowing sewer. After all, even the best and most spiritual of us have done all that.
Turning points happen
Zechariah, like most priests who were not in the top leadership, served in Jerusalem only two weeks out of the year. So one day, Elizabeth saw him off as usual, expecting him to return as usual. Neither had any reason to expect that this week of service would be any different from the others.
But Zechariah returned speechless. He had finally drawn the lot for the honor that had eluded him for so long. Not only that, but Gabriel had appeared to him and promised he would also have a son. Unfortunately, he chose that moment to act in unbelief and demanded proof that Gabriel had told him the truth. Gabriel told him to shut up for nine months.
Sure enough, Elizabeth was soon pregnant. Her shame turned to joy. She immediately praised God and then secluded herself for five months. Again, Scripture doesn’t say why, but we can speculate. In seclusion, she wouldn’t have to face the same old looks and words from the neighbors. After five months, she would be visibly pregnant. She wouldn’t have to say anything to anyone. Everyone would see that God had taken away her reproach.
Pregnancy after 35 or 40 seldom presents serious physical issues for women today. Elizabeth, however, lacked all the advantages of modern medicine. She must have had a difficult time until John was born. When the visitation happened, she may not have been feeling her best, physically.
Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judah. Mary lived in the village of Nazareth in Galilee. Mary would have to travel through or around Samaria to get to Judea. Commentators estimate that the visitation required traveling about 80 to 100 miles.
It probably took her several days. Surely, she did not travel alone. She probably had at least a male relative with her.
Scripture does not record whether she sent a message to Elizabeth to expect her visit. Nor does it say if Elizabeth knew Mary was pregnant. It simply records that in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (and one month after the end of her seclusion),
Mary showed up in her house, pregnant (but perhaps not visibly so) and unmarried. After a long journey, Mary was probably exhausted and perhaps looking bedraggled.
We have some wonderful art depicting the visitation. Not a one of them shows two tired women looking far from their best. Most of them show a background far more ornate than any Judean village really looked. Let’s not be too hard on them, though. The serenity and dignity of most paintings show the spiritual state both women must have felt regardless of how they looked or felt spiritually.
Probably no writer of fiction would have ever thought about what happened next in the visitation. John, three months before his birth, was filled with the Holy Spirit. He recognized the presence of the Holy Spirit in this visitor’s womb. He leapt for joy. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, recognized exactly what had happened within her and why.
She greeted Mary with a loud voice. Her greeting shows her excitement and acknowledgment that Mary’s boy would be superior to her own. Now remember, she was older. As a priest’s wife, she had higher social standing than Mary. And, of course, she was married and pregnant by her lawful husband. With all these factors, plus a mother’s natural hopes and dreams for her own child, no one could have expected this response.
- Elizabeth blessed Mary and Jesus. In fact, she called Mary the most blessed among women.
- She acknowledged Mary as the mother of her Lord. Gabriel had told Zechariah that John would be forerunner of the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. And now, Elizabeth identified the unborn Jesus as the Lord John would introduce.
- She could hardly have known about Mary’s encounter with Gabriel, but being filled with the Holy Spirit, she acknowledged Mary’s faith in believing him.
Mary offered her great prayer, the Magnificat, and stayed for three months. We can only imagine what the two of them talked about during that time. Mary probably returned to Nazareth just before John’s birth.
We can identify with Elizabeth in the anguish of her barren years. The Bible tells the story of the visitation to encourage us also to identify with her in her humble greeting to the mother of a greater child than hers.