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Elizabeth’s ‘no’

Together with that of Mary, the figure of Elizabeth, – wife of the priest Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist – is proposed by Luke as the source and means of that Copernican revolution which the nascent Christianity was to start in relation to the Jewish religion. If the reverence of the Temple was entrusted to the conservative male role of priests, the Christian faith opened itself to the lay and female arms of mothers, whether they were young or elderly, Jews or Galileans; if the God of the Temple was protected by exclusively enclosed worship and the rigid enforcement of precepts, the God of the Spirit took roads without boundaries and without walls, including all humanity and proclaiming salvation for all. Elizabeth was a woman capable of gratitude and of freedom, of prophecy and of courage. Salvation for Israel would not come from the orthodoxy of the priest of the Temple, but from the faith of a woman who, like her, had never stopped waiting.

Bill Viola, video-installation inspired by Jacopo Pontormo’s painting

The time to give birth came for Elizabeth and the son preserved in intimacy within her came into the world. Until then Mary alone knew about John with certainty; in theory Zechariah did too, but Luke does not say whether the he had ever truly believed it. Today Elizabeth’s son was not only born but everyone, those close to her and her kinsmen, could see him. Elizabeth had truly given birth to a son, and when she had become old! People were full of amazement and congratulated her. Having a child is always a sign of God’s love, but in exceptional cases, such as this, it is even more so.

The child was to be circumcised eight days after his birth. What is strange here is that Luke wrote: “They came to circumcise the child”, as if the initiative stemmed from those around and relatives rather than from the parents. It was as if that circumcision was due to the religious tradition, to blood ties, rather than to a true and proper decision. The protagonist, in short, was the religious family, the Jews of Elizabeth’s town.

Boys were circumcised in accordance with the tradition which dated back to Abraham:

“He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring…. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen 17:12, 14).

This rite thus rendered sons of Abraham to all extents and purposes heirs of the promise which God had made to the patriarch and to his descendents, the people of the Covenant.

Pontormo, “Visitation” (1528-1530)

As well as being present to celebrate the rite, spouses and acquaintances proposed the name to be given to the child. This was usually imposed on a son on the day of his birth, but in more recent Judaism the custom of naming him on the day of his circumcision had become ever more firmly established. For many women giving a son his name meant remembering the moment – often agonizing – of his birth.

So it was for Hannah who had called her son Samuel because the Lord had heard her lament (1 Sam 1:20), and also for the matriarchs of Israel: Leah who called her first-born son Reuben, because “The Lord has looked upon my affliction; surely now my husband will love me” (Gen 29:32); Rachel who called her first-born son Joseph, expressing the hope: “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Gen 30:24).

When it is mothers who give their son his name it is because they want him to be marked within by an unhoped for joy, a liberation from their humiliation, a branding mark of God’s mercy.

So it was for Elizabeth too. When her kinsfolk decided to call this son “Zechariah”, she forcefully put her foot down and said: “Not so; he shall be called John”. This was to be his name because this was the name written in her viscera as a mother: the gift of God. He was to be called John because this son came from God’s promise and not from the virility of the house of Levi. This was the truth! She had breathed its every joy, its every surprise, its every unhoped for gratuity. He had arrived as pure joy when for years she had longed for him. That unexpected arrival had made her life blossom anew, had restored dignity to her before the eyes of all, had given her back to the beauty of a world that was unfolding to the future, for her who was by then advanced in years. The name of that son was what God had brought about within her that was absolutely new, vital and beautiful and was not to be touched!

But her kinsmen insisted and refused even to consider it. To bestow a name that did not exist among her kin was out of the question. He was to be called Zechariah, he was to be given the name of Memory, which guarantees the past and preserves tradition. His father’s name and all that it represented had to be handed down to him. But Elizabeth said “no” precisely to what the name “Zechariah” defines: a priesthood incapable of accepting the newness of God’s gift; incapable of hearing the actual voice that comes from heaven and responds to the earth; incapable of addressing a word to anyone waiting outside the sacred rooms of the Temple. Zechariah was a name that had not only become ineffective but had even become a hindrance, a resistance and an obstacle to the passage of God.

Elizabeth said “No”. But her kinsfolk, custodians of the religious traditions, continued to ignore her. The name must be given to him by his father. This was his first-born son. The name must correspond with a logic of right and of ownership in which the person who counted was the father. The name must protect the traditional relationship with God of the whole of Israel.

Yet Elizabeth said “No!”, going beyond the religious tradition enclosed in Jewish conservatism and opening towards a new logic and a new light, which was the universal light of Mary and of Jesus.

The crowd of relatives did not give up and made signs to Zechariah to find out what it was that he wished to call the infant. It was a truly unique case of a long discussion on a name. It seemed a question of life or death. And indeed it was! Zechariah had proved to be deaf as well as mute. This was a deafness which signified his inability to listen to the Angel’s words (cf.Lk 1:20). Whoever is deaf or whoever does not want to listen in fact becomes mute. Faith opens the ears, but Zechariah had not had any and therefore became deaf.

Then, however, something special happened precisely while the neighbours were expecting to hold firmly to the logic of his tradition: Zechariah asked for a writing tablet. And on it he wrote the name John! At that very instant his tongue was loosened and he started speaking again: the first tangible sign of “the gift of god” for Zachariah! A gift from God and a gift from his wife Elizabeth.

Her faith and her open intelligence with regard to the new things that come from God had saved her husband too. It restored his voice to a priest already dead. The living faith of a woman had restored life to the body enclosed in a completely obtuse priestly class, both powerless and voiceless. He had been one who looked after himself and his rites alone and had banished from the Temple every possible channel of Mercy and Love.

The power of speech that Zechariah regained infected the onlookers. It was such a new word that it stupefied them and made them give in to the request and to the miracle. That name which the priest had received from his wife was truly unprecedented. Unheard of things were happening. The hills of Judaea too seemed astonished, while the people walking on them talked of nothing else.

The narration presents something exaggerated and paradoxical: how could there be such a strong reaction to the mere choice of a name? And yet the reason is clear: Elizabeth’s “no” changed the course of Israel’s history and the form of the Jewish religion.

As regards the course of history it was no longer to follow the priesthood of the Temple nor the God enclosed in the Temple, but rather the real, human experience of God which is revealed in concrete works of life and redemption and is expressed in authentic ties of love and faith, wherever these occur.

As for the form of religion, it was no longer to be obligatorily “mediated” by the priestly classes – the only religious authorities that remained to Judaism at the time of Jesus – but by the Love of God who becomes present and incarnate in the wombs and hopes of women, in the lives of simple lay people, in the homes of Gentiles and in the courage of prophets.

The writing of John’s name had an enormous effect on the entire mountain region of Judaea. It was an event that had almost as great an impact as the birth of Jesus on the groups of shepherds. That name became the opportunity not only for wonder but also for meditation. “Those who heard it kept all these things pondering them in their hearts: who ever could this child be?”. Mary did the same thing, observing all that happened at the birth of Jesus (cf. Lk 2:19). Something which was to change the whole world of that time was truly happening: starting from Judaea the “gift of God” would navigate seas and lands to the point of ushering itself into a history that would involve the entire ecumene.

Rosanna Virgili




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 12, 2019