The importance of the figure of Elizabeth, at the beginning of Christian history is not always given as much emphasis as it deserves. Yet reading the first chapter of Luke provides us with specific reasons to bring it into focus. Elizabeth’s life and words are so deeply interwoven with Jesus’ birth that it would be impossible not to recognize that Zechariah’s wife plays a leading role in the coming into the world of the Son of God.
Her unhoped for expectation of John’s birth is now a reality – she is already in the sixth month of pregnancy – when the angel visits her cousin Mary in distant Galilee. For her, a daughter of the tribe of Levi who lived in the environs of Jerusalem, a political and religious capital, this kinswoman must have been somewhat distant, and they must have seen each other seldom, given not only the distance but also the social difference between them. Elizabeth is an adult woman, the wife of a priest who officiates in the Temple, belonging indeed to a class in the upper echelons of the hierarchy of the Jews of Palestine. Mary by contrast is a country girl, a simple Jewish girl from the provinces. Elizabeth had been married for years, naturally to a man of her own descent and rank: indeed, the Levites married Levite women and vice versa. Mary was still betrothed to a man of the family of David, a good family certainly, of messianic lineage, but nevertheless secular. In a period – then – when there were no longer messiahs and the power belonged to priests, Joseph too was an ordinary man. However, the surprise was to come from on high, by a divine wish that an angel brought to completion, going from the Temple of Jerusalem to that distant region in Galilee to greet Mary.
That most extraordinary visit ended with an equally extraordinary proclamation: Mary was to become the mother of the “Son of the Most High” (cf. Lk 1:26-38).
From that moment the two women became as one and Mary hastened to Elizabeth. A common dream and a common destiny marked her way. Mary’s journey seems to have trodden the path that the angel had just unfolded for her. Leaving Galilee, leaving her town of Nazareth, she went, very likely on foot, as far as Judea. In comparison with the path of the angel, hers was in the reverse direction. Elizabeth’s village has no name, all that is said of it is that it was a city of Judah in the hill country (Lk 1:39); tradition has identified it with Ain Karim, six kilometres from Jerusalem.
What matters is that we are in Judea. And that Mary’s kinswoman belonged to a “sacred” family. Having arrived in the town, Mary behaved exactly like the angel: “She entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Lk 1:40). What might seem a most normal gesture assumes here a fundamental theological value: she not only goes to see her cousin Elizabeth but enters the priest’s house and what she will bring there overturns and radically changes the reality and function of the priests of the Temple.
What does the girl from Nazareth bring? The voice of Gabriel’s greeting and the source of life: her words are fertile like those of God and reawaken life. Elizabeth, in fact, feels her son leap in her womb at the very moment when Mary greets her. What the Virgin received from the angel’s announcement she now pours out on Elizabeth: Mary has become an angel of God!
Mary’s haste is welcomed with a blessing. In her the sign of that undertaking, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1:47) are Elizabeth’s words. A blessing, when it does not come from God’s lips but from those of a human being, stems from wonder and gratitude for something great which the blessed person has done. A first example is that of Abraham. Abraham had acted with great generosity on behalf of the city of Sodom: he had defeated the enemies who had declared war on it, restoring to it both its territory and its freedom (cf. Gen 14). Abraham had wanted nothing for himself as a recompense, showing himself to be completely disinterested as regards his efforts and his solidarity with the city of his nephew Lot. And it is in this situation that he received a blessing from the priest Melchizedek:
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Gen 14:19-20).
Given by a priest, the blessing reaches Abraham as a tribute from God for what he has done. The God of Melchisedek is called “Most High” like the God whose Son Jesus is, according to the words of the Evangelist (cf. Lk 1:32). Elizabeth’s blessing flows from precisely the One whom Mary carries in her womb: the Son of the Most High. For these reasons, just as the priest Melchisedek blesses the God Most High, so Elizabeth blesses the Son of the Most High, that is, the “fruit of your womb”; and in the same way that as a priest he invokes God’s blessing upon Abraham, so Elizabeth blesses Mary.
The figure of Mary becomes a substitute for that of Abraham and this will be confirmed in the Magnificat, which ends thus: “As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever” (Lk 1:55).
“Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them” , God had said to Abraham, “So shall your descendants be” (Gen 15:5). In the Son who is growing in Mary’s womb, he breathes the fullness of the ancient promise.
Elizabeth, by contrast, becomes a “priest” similar to Melchisedek: though foreign to any hereditary and legitimate authority to exercise the priestly function, it is she who blesses both Mary and God, to give thanks, in other words, for the great undertaking which is being brought about in her kinswoman, namely receiving and carrying the Son of God.
Another case which can help to clarify the meaning of Elizabeth’s blessing is that of Judith. Full of wisdom and beauty, of prudence and kindness, Judith – the “woman of Judea” – represents the very wisdom of Israel. Great were her courage, her strength and her generosity which saved Bethulia from the siege by its enemies. On her return from her heroic undertaking, Judith presented herself victorious at the gates of her city and it was then that: “All the people were greatly astonished, and bowed down and worshipped God, and said with one accord, ‘Blessed are you, our God who have brought into contempt this day the enemies of your people’”. Uzziah in turn says to Judith “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you” (Judith 13:17-18).
The plan is always the same: first God is blessed, then the woman (or man, as in the case of Abraham) who has achieved an extraordinary feat, of which God was at the origin, but which was also accomplished thanks to the faith of the person who believed in him. Feats that deserve blessing are always described in terms of war. In Abraham’s case it is a war among peoples who are fighting over a territory: in Judith’s case it is a war between a town and the enemies who are besieging it: in Mary’s case it is the revolution which God is bringing among both the poor and the rich, which is why the latter will be pulled down and the poor, instead, will be exalted.
However, the detail which brings close and at the same time distances Mary and Judith is the means they used for the salvation of the people: Judith used her bold hand in brandishing Holofernes’ sword; Mary used her womb, defenceless with the tenderness of a son. Mary does not use violence but rather her tiny being. The fruit of this womb therefore becomes the reason for Elizabeth’s blessing, for it is from him that God’s great work of salvation will come.
While in the previous cases it was kings and priests who gave the blessing, the case of Deborah and Jael is yet more similar to our own, for here a woman blesses another woman. Also set in the context of a war and arising from Israel’s victory, the song of Deborah blesses a woman for her providential courage: “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. He asked for water and she gave him milk” (Judg 5:24-26).
In the most difficult periods of Israel’s history, the women who join forces with each other to save the people often come into play. Such were the times of Deborah and Jael, those of Naomi and Ruth and even of the daughters of Lot, from whose daring initiative the peoples of Moab and Ammon drew their origins (cf. Gen 19:30-38). When the men proved frail, corrupt and fearful, or when they lacked everything, the women took centre stage.
The time of Mary and Elizabeth is one of these – a time of waiting and of profound crisis, of exhaustion and of the stagnation of Israel’s faith. It is a time in which God, as a response to the short-sighted and closed management which priests and doctors had made of the Temple was preparing another great undertaking for his people: the birth of a Son who would fill it with joy.
Elizabeth blesses Mary for the gift which she receives from her, giving her the profound joy of being a mother: “The babe in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk 1:44). This blessing has an exquisitely liturgical language and is celebrated in a home. This home may be compared with the sanctity of the Temple! But in it there is no “inside” and “outside”, as on the contrary was the case with the Temple. Here there is a humanity and a divinity which are interwoven in the bodies of two women. God is no longer shown protected and arcane as in the womb of the “Holy of Holies”, but alive and human, in the arms of the people of God.
Elizabeth and Mary are together the symbol of that people which prays and waits outside (cf. Lk 1:10, 21), but at the same time they become the voice of that God of life who also dwells in the Temple and they are a body of the same angel who was earlier standing on the altar (cf. Lk 1:11).
God makes himself the Holy Spirit upon Mary and upon Elizabeth, coming to dwell among his people for ever. When Elizabeth asks “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43), she echoes the words that David speaks over the ark brought to Jerusalem: “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:9).
“Blessed is she who believed”: Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is marvellous (Lk 1:45). With it a new period begins for Israel’s faith. Faith becomes a cause of happiness! It is no longer a duty, a precept or a tradition but rather a pleasure and a marvel. It is a miracle and a most beautiful adventure which makes the unthinkable possible. In addressing these words to her cousin, Elizabeth makes a confrontation with the opposing attitude of her husband, Zechariah, resound once again. While he had emerged from the Temple, unable to speak and sad, pouring out his powerless silence on the entire assembly (cf. Lk 1:22) Mary, on the contrary, was blessed because she believed. She believed in the angel and, unlike Zechariah, she also believed in the miracle which was being brought about in her cousin Elizabeth.
The Lord’s words were fulfilled in both these women and at the same time attained their fullness.
Faith, in short, is lived in the communion of two or more people, together with the angel of God. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). This meeting anticipates the reality of the Christian community which will be a place of joy and of adoration of the heart, replacing the Temple. Elizabeth’s home is a new “temple”! Where God is present as new life and full joy.
Just as Mary’s greeting had poured out the joy of the Spirit into Elizabeth’s heart and womb, so the latest words of Elizabeth cause an explosion of joy and of the Spirit in Mary herself. This excess cannot be contained but demands to be communicated as a hymn of redemption.
“My soul magnifies the Lord”: the body of the Son of God takes shape in Mary’s womb, is incarnate in space and time and “dilates” his presence in the world as a river of mercy, “from generation to generation” (Lk 1:50). “Henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48): this is the hymn which flows from Mary’s lips – an effect of the shadow of the Spirit and of Elizabeth’s blessing.
Rosanna Virgili, a biblicist, lives in Rome. She earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Urbino, in theology at the Pontifical Lateran University and a licence in biblical sciences at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome. She teaches exegesis at the Istituto Teologico Marchigiano, (aggregated to the Pontifical Lateran University). Her publications include Il “no” di Elisabetta. Lettura di Lk 1-2, Ancora Publishing House, Milan 2013.
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