Throughout the Bible God’s power is often shown through a barren woman becoming pregnant after everyone has given up hope. Inspiring examples include Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife (Samson’s mother) and Elizabeth. The physical inability of these women to bear children - they were all well past the age of fertility - enhances the impact of the miraculous nature of their conception. Elizabeth, however, stands out from the other women in position in that she was not only granted a miraculous conception in her old age, but was able to share it with Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Both Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah ‘were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly’ (Luke 1:6; NIV). But despite their impeccable reputation as servants of the Lord and respectable status in society, the couple had not been blessed with a child – ‘they were childless because Elizabeth had not been able to conceive, and they were both very old’ (Luke 1:7; NIV). Note that the lack of conception is assumed to be due to some fault of the woman, rather than the man, and consider what this would have meant for women in those days. Back then, a woman’s barrenness was not only a misfortune, but a disgrace! Had the significance of Elizabeth’s son’s birth been made known to her in her youth, perhaps this burden would have been easier to bear. Yet incredibly Elizabeth did not become bitter about her barrenness – she retained her faith in God’s plan throughout her life.
Every time we listen to the Christmas story, we casually skim over Mary’s visit to Elizabeth whilst both women were pregnant: seeing it as a nice detail but, essentially, just two women having a natter over a cup of tea – why is that special? Because Mary was several months pregnant, unmarried and legitimately (by law) at risk of being stoned to death if she was found by the authorities. The Visitation is unlikely to have been the purely joyful event it is often portrayed as – by sheltering Mary in her home, Elizabeth was also bravely putting her own reputation and safety on the line to save the Messiah she knew Mary was carrying!
As with Mary and Joseph, the Angel Gabriel foretold his wife’s pregnancy to Zechariah – ‘your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you are to call him John’ (Luke 1:13; NIV). As a result Elizabeth knew that John would do great things, that he would be the one ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. Whilst Zechariah doubted this message, Elizabeth believed totally and utterly that God's power and love for her were so great that He could make even the least likely things happen. Yet rather than proclaim her fortune to the world or place herself on a par with her cousin, she humbled herself and bowed down before Mary – asking innocently ‘why am I so favoured that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’. Not only did she recognise the power of the child in Mary’s womb and its identity as the Messiah, but she ignored her own high status (we are told that her father was a priest, meaning she would have come from a highly respectable family) and saw herself instead as a lowly servant of her Saviour.
Elizabeth teaches never to give up faith in the great things God can do! Even when we least expect it, he blesses us with the most surprising miracles that enhance our lives no end. Miracles that remind us it is not by our own works, but by the work of God’s hand that we prosper, because ‘all things were created by him, and for him’ (Colossians 1:16). Her pure, thankful heart reflects the child-like gratitude with which we should receive the gifts God is offering us, and her discerning wisdom offers the reassurance that even today, if we humble ourselves and lay our own desires down at the foot of the cross, we can hear God’s voice and follow His path.