My Body Is a Witness for My Lord: Elizabeth's Pregnancy and Faith
Elizabeth and the Good News
Christian Williams asks great questions. She has a podcast coming up, and graciously invited me to talk with her about Elizabeth for an episode. And because of our lovely discussion (thank you, Christian!) I can’t stop thinking about her.
Elizabeth—descendant of Levi, old, and barren—appears “only” in the first chapter of Luke in the same way Melchizedek only appears in Genesis 14 to bless Abraham. Her witness is weighty. She is regarded by God, along with her husband Zechariah, as righteous—which would make her barrenness questionable. Why would a righteous woman be unable to have children? The culture regarded children as gifts from God who insured security and provision in old age. Lack of children was perceived as an obvious physical sign of God’s withholding of blessing. Elizabeth and Zechariah were already elderly and without children, which would leave many whispering about who sinned—Elizabeth, Zechariah, or perhaps their parents?—and perhaps louder griping about needing to extend charity to the old couple. They should have had children to ease the burden. Why didn’t they have children?
But the barrenness was not a punishment.
The barrenness was not a punishment.
There are people who need to read that twice. I am in that number. Some of us are accused of living in sin for just living in our bodies: those of us who have survived miscarriage and pregnancy loss; those of us who have been reviled and isolated for being single and child-free; those of us who are treated as invisible as we’ve aged; those of us living with chronic illness.
The grace of God was present in Elizabeth’s life before anything supernatural took place. She was “righteous in the sight of God,” without a baby. This woman’s life was enough for the living God. Enough all by herself. May we all live long and still have the descriptor of our lives: “righteous in the sight of God.”
An ancient African American proverb states, “worry about yourself,” yet we are too keen to focus our log-laden vision upon the piety of others, wrongly and often. We’ve cursed the people God has blessed, because our eyes are not trained to discern righteousness with the capacious generosity of the Lord. Too many of us were trained to look at Zechariah—Levite, priest, man—and conflate his righteousness with his social location. He looks even more selfless for staying married to a barren, old woman when he could have just had her put away. He’s blessed because he looks blessed; he fits the profile.
According to the Scriptures, the Lord looks upon Zechariah and calls him righteous, so that’s the last word. Yet Luke is also setting up a contrast between Zechariah, the presumed blessed priest, and Elizabeth. She is too female, too old, and too barren to be righteous in the eyes of the profilers.
Zechariah has access to God from birth. He is trained to know and serve Yahweh. He is a priest; he wins the priestly lottery and burns incense—representing the prayers of God’s people—in the temple of Yahweh. He is visited by Gabriel who stands in the presence of God. He is explicitly told of the coming pregnancy of Elizabeth and birth of John the Baptist. All the doors are open; Zechariah has seen. All that is left is to believe.
“But how can I know this will really happen?” Zechariah responded to the angel he was talking to in the temple of Yahweh. He messed around and was about to find out that Gabriel had the power to make him mute, but only after Gabriel read him first. Gabriel would be having the last word—which was a severe grace. Zechariah would meditate on the promises of God without any interruption, and his confirmation in the midst of the silence would be the kicks of John in Elizabeth’s belly.
Elizabeth doesn’t have Zechariah’s experience. Zechariah presents prayers in the temple of God, but Elizabeth presents her prayers with her lips, her heart, to the open air. Zechariah is visited by an angel; there is no account for how Elizabeth received this news. We just know from Luke 1:24 that Elizabeth became pregnant after Zechariah came home from his priestly service, and that she remained in seclusion for 5 months.
Elizabeth’s body was the message of the Good News. Her body was a witness to the work of God. Where Zechariah said, “how can I know” after being given an abundance of evidence, Elizabeth experiences wonder in the hush. Her body’s swelling, growing, and stretching, the fullness of her breasts and the broadening of her nose, her appetite changes, her nausea—all these were knowings for Elizabeth.
God speaks in more than just a cerebral way; there are knowings that can only happen in the body.
God was preaching through the body of Elizabeth that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The priest was silenced and his wife’s body heralded the fulfillment of God. God overturned the reproach hurled upon Elizabeth—that’s good news. The woman who probably hadn’t had a period in decades had a baby growing inside her now. To be clear, Elizabeth had found favor with God before she became pregnant; now the community would witness what was already true. And the baby would become a witness before he even left the womb.
A woman’s body is a sacred place to God. Don’t trust those who pit women’s bodies against the Lord; a woman’s body was safe enough for the Savior and his prophet.
Elizabeth was not a mere vessel, either, just like Mary wasn’t: she had knowings to share with John that would prepare him for the wilderness, the baptisms, the declaration of the coming of the Lamb of God—and also prepared him for the naysayers, the whispers. John knew to leap at the sound of Mary’s voice because he was accustomed to a Spirit-filled, discerning mama. Elizabeth’s belief and encouragement set the stage for Mary’s Magnificat—Mary could finally pour out her praise within the safety that Elizabeth provided. Mary was believed. Elizabeth and Mary stayed together until it was time for John to be born. I can only imagine the conspiracies of radical hope that passed between them as they fortified one another with the promises of God to tear down the rich and exalt the poor, declaring the Lord’s favor as they carried those babies.
Before John, there was Elizabeth. God picked a woman who lived amid whispers and judgment and the heartbreak of unfulfilled longings, subject to both the miraculous and the maligning, to raise John the Baptist. He still asked questions like, “are you the one, or should we look for another?” because he was human. Yet Elizabeth had such strong discernment that she knew, without angels and without the guidance of man, that she was in the presence of her Savior. Her body was a potent and sufficient witness.
Beautiful, as always ❤️
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