But when Zechariah came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute. Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home to his wife, Elizabeth.
Luke 1: 22-23
She is so beautiful, my Elizabeth. For so many years we have shared our married bed, and for so many years she cried to me, “Zechariah! Why can’t we have children? My heart is breaking,” and I would hold her gently as she sobbed the deep loss only a barren woman can know. The long years of childless life for her were difficult, but in her great beauty and faith, she held her head high and rejoiced with others at the births of their children. The great sadness that we shared as husband and wife also bound us together even more closely in our love of God.
Whenever it was my turn to do my priestly service at the temple, she always reminded me to bring the prayer that was a part of our lives. Of course I took it to the Lord. “Please, for my sake and for my beautiful Elizabeth, give us a child,” I would beg. But we don’t know the mind of the Lord. The prayer was never answered.
And then it was.
In that very odd way many months ago, as I entered the sanctuary alone, an angel, Gabriel, stood next to the altar. I was so afraid and confused. “Your prayer has been answered,” he said and told me that my beloved Elizabeth would bear a child – a son! In my fear and confusion the freedom of my heart left me. I stammered out, Why? How? We are so old! I need a sign! Prove this to me. Can this be real?
The sign, of course, is my silence. From that moment on, I have been unable to speak. When I came home, my Elizabeth knew that something sacred had happened. I tried to gesture to her, to write it down for her, but the words were not adequate. A child, Elizabeth! But she could not make herself believe until it became real in the weeks that followed. Such a gift from the Lord, this child. Of course we will do as Gabriel asked. We will call him John, “God’s gracious gift,” for surely he is.
And now this visit from our Mary, our dear young cousin from Nazareth, who has been like our daughter. She is so full of grace and humor and love and I know why she is a favorite of Elizabeth’s. Mary has traveled all the way from Galilee to visit us and when the two women embraced this afternoon in the doorway, Elizabeth felt the movement of our baby for the first time.
Now we have finished our evening meal and I have brought out a blanket for them to share against the cool night. They have given me the seat by the fireplace. I cannot speak but love to listen to them share their lives.
And then the remarkable story begins to come out. Mary tells of a visit by an angel – my Gabriel! She speaks softly as she recounts the visit for Elizabeth. She trusts Elizabeth so much and tells her of the fears and hesitation she had at that moment Gabriel presented her with the great question: Would she bear the Messiah?
The Messiah! The Son of the Most High?! When he asked, Mary fought with her fears silently and then opened her heart to the Lord in prayer. Of course she would say yes. That is the difference between us. Her faith is so great for one so young. When Gabriel spoke to me, I wanted to argue and question because it made no sense. I did not trust. But now I hear about this great moment in my own home!
“Mary,” Elizabeth whispers grabbing her hand. “How have I been blessed like this? To have the mother of the Messiah come to me?” Then her eyes light up and she holds Mary close saying, “The baby in my womb, this great gift from Yahweh, is leaping for joy within me,” and the two women smile and hold their hands to her womb.
My eyes fill up with tears at this sacred moment and I remember Gabriel’s words to me about my son: “He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.” And so already, he is announcing this Messiah with his joyful leaping.
Prayers fill my head, as they so often do in these silent days. I am overcome with gratitude to Yahweh for allowing me to witness this, to see the mother of the Messiah, and I am humbled to think it is our own kinswoman. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,” I pray silently but in my heart my voice soars loudly with joy.
Suddenly the Holy Spirit fills me and I know what role our child will fill. I get up silently and cross over to the women. I bend down and touch my Elizabeth’s womb praying in my heart, “And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” My John, my great gift from the Lord, will speak of the Messiah in the years to come, before anyone knows of this child now in Mary’s womb. My heart is so full and I look with brimming eyes at these two faithful women.
I kneel before Mary and as I begin my mute prayer of great thanks to the Lord, Elizabeth, in her heaviness, leans closer to me, joining me in prayer. Mary, her beauty and simplicity shining in her, shakes her head humbly. This is not about her. This is about the Lord.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she begins softly, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!” She begins to smile and then to laugh as she fills with a glorious joy.
“Yahweh has look on me in my lowliness,” she said touching her womb in amazement. “The mighty one has done great things in me and holy is his name!”
I think of all of the years, the generations, the centuries that our people have waited for this. The Messiah! We had pictured a king coming! Honors and glory! Instead our savior comes through this young and decidedly un-royal young woman. This down-to-earth, loving woman carries our Emmanuel. Our God with us. He is here!
“Contemplating the Visitation with Zechariah,” from Creighton University’s Praying Advent 2006 series