People of the Book – Elizabeth and Zachariah
On May 31, the church remembered the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, when Jesus’ relative John (who will eventually baptize him) memorably leapt in the aged womb of his mother during the two pregnant women’s embrace. Elizabeth and her husband, Zachariah, are celebrated in both the New Testament (Lk 1) and the Quran (sura 19).
In a typical biblical motif, the graying couple seeks an heir despite problems of sterility (see Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, etc). However, something new takes place in this particular narrative. After Gabriel appears and announces God’s plan to give them the son they so ardently desire, Zachariah is literally dumbfounded, and then semi-permanently kept in this state of inability to speak as a punishment for his hesitancy to believe. (Interestingly, monk and author Thomas Merton, in discerning his vocation to the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance, more commonly called the Trappists, flipped open a Bible and blindly pointed to the passage Ecce eris tacens, the angel’s words to Zachariah, “Behold, you shall be silent.” He followed the advice, but doesn’t endorse the strategy for moral decision-making in general.)
Of course, God’s will can never be thwarted, and thus Elizabeth does conceive and Zachariah does agree to name the child John, despite the peculiarity of the command to disregard the practice of employing ancestral family names. Upon the birth, Zachariah famously writes on a tablet for all to see his desire to have the youth called John, to everyone’s shock and amazement. This scene, along with others of Elizabeth, Zachariah and the Baptist’s life, is famously depicted in frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the beautiful Cappella Tornabouni in Florence’s church of Santa Maria Novella, which I visited often during my time studying there.
Scripture scholars such as Joseph Fitzmyer and Raymond Brown agree that evidence suggests the historical Mary did in fact visit her kinswoman, and that the stirring prayers Luke records are based on firsthand and remembered accounts of these events – the Magnificat, Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis, and the Canticle of Zachariah.
The last, also called the Benedictus, is prayed during Lauds, in the early morning Liturgy of the Hours. It includes the following prayer of thanksgiving: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people. He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant, even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old…the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Elizabeth, one of numerous patron saints for pregnant and expectant mothers, plays perhaps an even greater role than Zachariah in giving voice to sentiments that resound within our own unworthy reception of that Pearl of great price which her cousin held buried deep within the darkness of her womb: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
While avoiding the saccharine-sweet sentimentality which can hinder a brisk and solemnly austere reflection on the Christian mysteries, it is important for Catholics to remember the advocate they have in Mary, that first and living Tabernacle to house the eternal Word of God made flesh. St. Ambrose saw in Mary’s hastening to her cousin an image of the church bounding over the hills of history.
Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Just as the Spirit overshadowed Mary, inspiring her joy and fortitude, so too the Spirit imbues us every day with rich and abundant grace to follow our own calling. The important thing to remember is that Mary had confidence in God her Savior, a wellspring of joy and comfort” (Truly Our Sister, 266).
Let us return often to that wellspring, to draw life-giving water, as did the pregnant Elizabeth and her mute husband, two unusually-imaged prophets that defy our expectations of who can work in and for God.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.