Bastion of Barrenness
How can two women—one much too young, the other much too old—change the direction of a nation that its officially selected leaders could never change?
How can two women who no one ever heard of actually believe their sons—not even born yet—will grow up to lead the nation into freedom from the most powerful force in the world?
The audacity. The simplistic nerve.
Besides, the old one—Elizabeth—is way too shy. Has been all her life. Can’t prod her to say anything in a group. That is, if you ever catch her in a group. More like a wall flower. Sometimes even a recluse.
Don’t be surprised if her son turns out to be just like her instead of bold enough to actually lead the nation as she thinks. Don’t be surprised if he shies away from people like she does. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a hermit. Just like his mother.
Then there are their husbands. The young one doesn’t even have a husband. Got pregnant anyway. And the old one’s husband? If ever opposites attracted, it certainly was so of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Zechariah talks too much. Never knows when to shut up.
When her husband goes to serve his month-long term at the temple once every other year, she doesn’t go with him. Too much excitement. Too many people. Too public.
In fact, she’d rather not live in Jerusalem at all like some of the priests’ families do.
Actually, she doesn’t like city living anywhere. She likes the quiet country life. Deep down she has always been a country girl, even now that she is growing old.
Elizabeth should have gotten used to the idea by now. What idea? The new one. She is with child.
Pregnant at her age? How can it be? She knows. Her husband knows. But no one else knows. It is a miracle. But how do you explain a miracle? A sixty-five-year old woman just doesn’t become pregnant.
And to complicate things, her husband has been unable to talk since the angel came to him with the news of her imminent pregnancy. He could have explained it to people. Elizabeth can’t explain anything. She wants to be excited about it, but so many other things are going wrong.
- BC 7
- An Obscure Village in Province of Judea, Palestine
“Thank you, Oh God, for answering our prayers. But, why now?” she prays at night. “My baby needs a father who can talk. Why now?”
Elizabeth’s one long braid hangs straight down her back with many strands coming loose. The large gray streak in her hair begins above her forehead and swirls back almost to her crown. It is almost white. Her clothes are wrinkled most of the time from being in bed so much, but she does not care.
“Elizabeth, are you sure you need to stay in bed all this time?” Zechariah scribbles on the small clay tablet he carries with him now. “It’s been three months.”
Though older than Elizabeth by five years, Zechariah has a little gray hair showing at his temples. Unlike his wife who never cared much what her clothes looked like, Zechariah takes pride in his appearance.
Frustrated and frightened, Elizabeth pats her abdomen, indicating she must rest for the sake of the baby.
Her husband does not agree. But what does he know? He’s never had an expecting wife before.
Several moments later he returns with her lunch, consisting of a square of cheese, a small loaf of bread, and a goblet of milk. He leaves it within her reach, then returns to his work in the other room.
Elizabeth has not eaten since yesterday. Nausea continues. But she forces down what she can. For the sake of the baby.
When she is through, she gets out the scroll she keeps nearby and continues reading.
Though not allowed to attend synagogue school with the boys in her village, her father had made sure she had an education anyway. Elizabeth had always been quick to understand things. Once she had learned to read to a sufficient proficiency, she began asking if she could read some of the scripture scrolls. By the time she was a teenager, she had become an avid scroll reader, and read every one she could lay her hands on. After marrying Zechariah, a priest with access to all the scripture scrolls, she had decided to memorize as many as she could.
Yesterday, she had left off reading the account of the kings of Israel where Elijah was interacting with the king and queen, and with the pagan priests.
The angel had told her husband that her baby would be strong like Elijah, and would prepare people for the coming of the Messiah, the Deliverer.
“Oh, God.” she prays. “Help me raise this child so he will be strong, and so he won’t run from his responsibilities.” She pauses. She reflects. “…Like me, God. I hide because I’m afraid. Afraid of losing the baby, afraid of explaining things to people. I guess I’ve been afraid of people all my life. Help me also to not run from my responsibilities.”
By the end of the day, she feels she has prayed in vain. She cannot imagine herself standing before her neighbors and allowing them to gape at her. How is she ever going to teach her son to stand before kings?
It is now four months. Zechariah leans over her, smiling. As he looks into her eyes, he pulls back her covers, takes both her hands, and gently encourages her to get out of bed. As usual, Elizabeth hesitates. But this time she realizes she can no longer use her old excuses.
So with tears in her eyes, she swings her feet around, stands, puts her arm in his, and walks out to the courtyard. Each step seems easier than the one before.
The warm early summer day feels good. She feels the sun warm on her pale skin, and the breeze flowing gently through her hair. He leads her toward her cushion. He has bought her a new one. She notices, smiles, and says “Thank you.”
As she walks, her tears recede. She smiles. It is nice.
Of course Zechariah is right. I do need to get up and around more. The chance of losing the baby should be passed by now. I need the exercise. I need to stay strong. For the baby.
She gathers her skirts around her and her husband helps steady her. She sits and looks around as though a visitor in her own courtyard.
“Zechariah, thank you for cooking for me, but you forgot to clean up around the cooking oven.” She smiles at him. “We’ll need to put some of these things away soon.” Her shelves along the wall are empty, with cooking utensils on the cobble stone under them. Her normally everything-in-its-place husband has shown her how much she is needed.
After a little rest, she gets up and begins putting things where they belong. Sometime later she puts one hand on her chest and one on her abdomen. “I didn’t think I would be this tired. I’ll have to rest before I finish.” She returns to the cushions her husband has prepared for her. “I’ll have to gradually gain my strength back.”
After a short respite, she continues to silently work her way around the courtyard putting things back in their proper place. The light things, that is. She doesn’t want to endanger the child, of course.
But, as usual, she must do it in silence. Always the silence. How is she ever going to be able to raise their son with her husband not able to talk?
She the introvert. He the extrovert. That’s why her parents had consented to her marrying him with his outgoing personality. He would make up for her social shortcomings.
With things half in order, she heads back to her bedroom. Zechariah looks up and stops her. He leads her over to a bench and smiles. She recognizes that smile. It’s the smile that she responds to when she lets him have his way. “You’ve been up for a while,” he writes. “That is good for you and the babe.”
She knows somehow, she is going to have to be used to staying up during the day.
And so she does.
Each morning Elizabeth rises, washes, rebraids her hair, and then goes to her cushion. After another rest, she prepares the first meal of the day. Then she rests again.
She knows in a little while someone will appear at their gate from the market with the food for the day. Zechariah will answer the gate as long as she is not ready to tell the world about her pregnancy.
As always, in the afternoon, she gets out the scroll and reads once more about Elijah. She does not really have to read it because she has now memorized it. But sometimes she likes seeing the reassurance of the words written on the parchment.
She thinks of the ups and downs of Elijah’s life. He had performed unbelievable miracles, then wanted to die. He had stood up to the king and queen, run for his life, and then returned to his country to put his life in danger again. Will that be the kind of life her son will lead, once he is grown and has begun his life as a prophet? Will he endanger himself as Elijah had? Will he appear before Herod, as Elijah had his own king? Couldn’t he be like some other prophet who wasn’t in so much danger? But, as she thinks over the old prophets, she realizes they all had hard lives.
Oh, God. Don’t let my son have as hard a life as Elijah.
Zechariah returns home. He has been gone to take care of some business. He sees her reclining on the cushions in the courtyard napping, the scroll on the cobblestone next to her. He sets aside the scroll she has been reading.
Gently he wakens her.
“Oh, I didn’t know you were back,” she replies, frustrated with no one to have a real conversation with.
It has now been five months since Elizabeth has become pregnant. Five months of trying to absorb the whole thing and of praying in deep gratitude, but also frustration over her husband’s inability to speak.
Five months of reading about the first Elijah, knowing that the son within her must declare to the people that their Deliverer will come in their life time. Will the people be glad to hear him make the grand announcement? Surely they will. But will King Herod? Of course not. How is her son going to handle King Herod? Will he be brave enough? Brave like his father? Not shy like his mother?
“Elizabeth, you must start getting out. The neighbors keep asking about you,” Zechariah scratches out on his clay tablet.
“Not that again. I just can’t bring myself to do it. How will I explain it to people?”
“You’ll figure it out,” her husband gestures with an outward sweep of his arms.
Although she smiles in agreement, she knows she is not going anywhere.
I’ve changed. How did I let this happen? I can’t even leave my home any more. I used to like being around my friends as long as there weren’t too many at a time. But now… She looks over at her frowning husband. He does not push the issue and leaves her alone.
What if the sensationalist gossips find out I’m going to have a baby in my old age? What if news reaches other towns? Then what happens to our privacy?
So many reasons to stay to herself. Some good. Some not good.
The warm summer sun allows her to stay out in their courtyard most days. She hears people out on the street. I wonder if some of those voices are my old friends. Why did I back away from everyone? Why am I so afraid? I’ve been afraid before, but nothing like this since I became pregnant.”
“It’s not me. It’s just not me,” she declares to her husband one day during their evening meal of lamb stew, bread, and a few grapes. It had taken her all day to prepare it, but she had managed.
I want so to be happy. But I haven’t been able to control my depression. It’s not like me.
“Being pregnant?” he scribbles back.
“Being so selfish,” she replies. “What if my friends have been needing me?” she responds unexpectedly. Then she recites her mental list: “Rebecca. Judith. Hulda. Rachel.”
Elizabeth puts both hands on her husband’s shoulder and uses his strong body as leverage to stand.
She turns and looks at the large pots along one wall she had used in the past to take food to the sick. “Those pots have been up on that shelf since last winter. What has happened to my friends? Have they needed me and I wasn’t around to help?”
With new resolve, she goes to her bedroom where she keeps her cloak and comes back with it on. Sitting down again she takes the cloak back off. “What will I tell people?” she wonders aloud.
“I’ll go with you,” Zechariah writes on his tablet. “I’ve already explained to them why I can’t talk. They know about you.”
“They know?” Why hadn’t she thought of that? Of course they know. Zechariah could never keep a secret. She has been in her own world too long. Her own selfish world.
She imagines her husband going first to their relatives and then to their neighbors and finally to the synagogue. “The Deliverer is coming!” he must have written to them. “The Deliverer is coming! He’s going to be a friend of the family. He’s going to be a personal friend of our son.”
Zechariah interrupts her thought. He takes his elderly wife’s hands, and slowly she rises up from her seat. He is smiling again. That smile that says, “I’m going to get my way now.”
He helps her put her cloak back on, then slowly walks with her to the front gate.
She can do it. She knows she can. As long as he is beside her, she knows.
Zechariah opens the gate and Elizabeth follows him out. She looks at the familiar sights and, though nervous, feels glad to be back.
They turn and walk slowly up the street. Zechariah grins and his eyes sparkle. A few people pass them, not noticing. But then the inevitable.
“Is that you, Elizabeth?”
Her best friend, Rebecca, grabs her hands. “Oh, Elizabeth. I had heard you were pregnant. But I thought Zechariah was just getting senile and making the whole thing up. He was right. Elizabeth, just look at you.”
The women hug. “Come see me, Elizabeth. I’ve been missing you.”
Little by little people recognize her and stop to talk. “Is it true? You’re going to have a miracle baby? Oh, Elizabeth, it is true! I’m so happy for you!”
Little by little Elizabeth realizes she does not have anything to explain. I brought my worry upon myself. I hadn’t realized how much people loved me, and would therefore believe me. I needn’t have stayed away from them as I had.
Days go by. Gradually Elizabeth returns to her old life. But a life that is different. It will never be the same again. For now she is pregnant. People on the street hear her say softly but proudly, “God did this for me. He’s been kind to me after all, and I will never again feel embarrassed because I could not have children just like all of you.”
In the evenings she ponders how irrational she had become in her fear. She had been embarrassed when she could not have children. Then, when she became pregnant, she had become embarrassed by that. How inconsistent humans can be sometimes, she thinks.
“God, forgive me,” she prays sometimes. God knows what she means.
It is now six months. Elizabeth has had a lot of visitors. Everyone in the village has wanted to see this old woman who isn’t supposed to be pregnant but is. The men slap Zechariah on the back. The women exchange stories about their own pregnancy experiences, and what it is like to hold one’s own baby.
With the attention, Elizabeth finds herself talking more and more about Elijah. “He’s going to be like Elijah, you know,” she tells people. She has told this every time she has seen them. They smile with happiness for their friend.
Often at night she wonders who the Deliverer will be. Will I recognize him? Who is the mother? Is she pregnant yet? Do I know her? Is she in seclusion too? What is her name? Will we mothers ever meet?
Then she reminds herself he has not been born yet. But he will be soon.
- Nazareth, Province of Galilee
Mary is up early preparing breakfast for the entire family by herself. She has not really slept anyway.
The Son of God… The Son of God… The words echo through her mind continually as they have all night.
“Mary! What’s the special occasion?” her mother asks, delighted with the surprise breakfast.
“Could I go see Aunt Elizabeth? Please, may I?” Mary is quite aware that Elizabeth is actually her cousin, but she is older even than Mary’s parents. So Mary feels more comfortable calling her aunt.
She turns to her father. “Please? I just want to go away awhile before my wedding.”
“It’s a long trip down south,” he responds. “But I guess it will be okay.”
“Oh, thank you, Father. Thank you, Mother. I love you so much.”
“We love you too, Mary” they answer, perplexed at her sudden expressiveness.
Mary spends the rest of the day washing and drying clothes and packing them in her tote. Little sister, Salome, makes suggestions on what she should take on her vacation.
Their parents think she’ll just be gone a couple weeks. But, if Elizabeth is truly pregnant, Mary knows she’ll be pregnant too. The confirmation she needs. She has to get some advice from Elizabeth on how to handle the family. And Joseph. And her friends. She really needs time with Elizabeth right now. Elizabeth will be the only one who truly understands.
The next day at dawn, the family takes her to a caravan forming at the city gate. “Now stay close to them. Herod’s soldiers and the Roman legionnaires on the road should leave you alone. This caravan leader is known to them. They won’t bother him. So stay close. Stay safe,” her father warns over and over.
Mary glances at the tall, rotund, middle aged caravan leader. His clothes are practical for a traveling man, and he wears no jewelry or anything of value a highway robber might want. He carries a sword at his side and a dagger attached to his leg. His dark eyes dart side to side watching for highwaymen lurking in the sidelines, men who he has long ago learned to recognize.
Alternately, he surveys the people in his caravan, locking on to each person’s face individually. He notices Mary, smiles and waves. He winks at Mary’s father who has paid him a little extra to deliver his little girl to her destination safely.
Mary works her donkey into the small group, demanding no attention by the others. Not by word, demeanor, or anything else.
Though Mary believes deep within her soul that her body now protects and nourishes the offspring of the Creator, she looks no different. No halo given her by God. She has not made for herself special clothing or jewelry to display how holy she is. She is just Mary.
- On Road Between Provinces of Galilee and Judea
Mary settles as comfortably as possible on her donkey, riding side saddle. She follows the caravan down the hill that is Nazareth. Turning slightly, but keeping her balance, she waves to her family watching her until the travelers are out of sight.
Out on the road, she leans securely on her tote, closes her eyes, and prays.
God, please let Aunt Elizabeth be pregnant. If she’s pregnant, then I know I am. God, I believe I am, but I can’t know for sure yet. It’s too soon. Give me this sign. Help me know for sure. Like I knew for sure yesterday. Please, God, let Aunt Elizabeth be pregnant.
Sometimes Mary briefly dreams. Often she is in a half daze. Sometimes it is a whispering in her soul.
Gradually the terrain changes. The flat land is left behind. It is getting hilly.
The caravan stops at a public well. Everyone goes to the side of the road, sits on a saddle blanket on the ground while their animals rest, and bring out their lunch. Nearly all have bread, many have fruit, and a few have dried meat.
Mary eats some cheese and fruit she has brought with her. She must not skip meals any longer as she used to do when busy with something too interesting to break away from. Now she eats for two.
Strange. Yesterday I was just a teenager planning my wedding. Today I am different. I’ll never be the same, will I?
Several talk quietly among each other. Mary does not. Her father had warned her not to talk to anyone unless they were close neighbors, and none of them are. Some lean back and take a quick noon-time nap. Mary is among them.
Lunch over, the caravan leader announces for everyone to finish filling their water skins, watering their animals, and remount.
On the road again.
Please be pregnant, Aunt Elizabeth, Mary continues to repeat silently. God, please make Aunt Elizabeth be pregnant.
It is almost mountainous now. Fewer trees as they wind around curves. Leaning. Swaying. Panting.
Her thoughts go deep. What about Joseph? Will he believe me? Will I lose him?
Her soul whispers a prayer. Oh God. I am blessed among all women of the world. Why did you choose me? But you did. May I be worthy of your confidence in me. And God? Can you touch Joseph’s heart so he will believe me?
She shifts her weight on her donkey. She is so light, the donkey does not flinch, but keeps trudging on down the road.
Mary feels God leaning low and protecting the traveling group with his own hand.
And God, give me a sign I really am pregnant. May Aunt Elizabeth really be pregnant. Just like the angel said. I believe. Help me keep on believing.
- Obscure Village in Province of Judea
Elizabeth finds herself looking out the window facing the street. She does not know why. She just does.
She goes for a walk. She watches the women pass by. Perhaps the Deliverer’s mother is in Jerusalem. That’s where the government is. Perhaps she is there.
I wonder if I’ll be able to meet her while our sons are babies, or if I’ll have to wait until they are grown and they find each other. Well, I may not live that long. It would be so nice to know her now. Then I would have someone to talk to who understands my situation. And I’d understand hers.
“Holy God, does she—whoever she is—need me?”
It is now late afternoon. Elizabeth is busy preparing their evening meal. She also listens for something out in the street. She is not sure for what. Or for whom.
At long last, just as the sun swells into a red glow in readiness to slip away, Mary’s caravan stops at an inn for the night. She will go on into the village. Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah live here.
“Got everything you need?” asks the caravan leader. “Your father said this is where you leave us.”
“Yes, but does anyone know which house belongs to Zechariah the priest?”
“The priest? Yeah, I know where he lives,” the man replies. “I can take you there myself.”
“Is it far?” she asks.
“No. Just take this street down two blocks, turn left, and his place is the third gate on the right.”
“Thank you, sir. I think I can find it by myself. Thank you for everything.”
Moments later, Mary and her donkey stop in front of Uncle Zechariah’s and Aunt Elizabeth’s house. Her heart in her throat, Mary slips down, stands in front of the gate and stares. A little fear wells up inside her. What if Aunt Elizabeth is not pregnant?
Well, God, this is it. Mary prays. If Aunt Elizabeth is pregnant, then I know for sure that I am. God, please let Aunt Elizabeth be pregnant.
Mary ties her donkey to a post, takes her tote down, and then pauses. Please, God. Please…
She knocks and waits.
What will she find? Will she be given that final confirmation of the angel’s promise? That final confirmation of her faith? Or was it all a trick?”
The gate slowly opens.
Mary takes a deep breath.
And there stands Aunt Elizabeth. There she stands… Pregnant! Very pregnant and protruding very nicely, thank you!
“Oh, Aunt Elizabeth. You are. You are pregnant!”
The gate remaining open, the old woman and the young woman fall on each other’s necks in immediate understanding, embracing and refusing to let go. Tears rush to their eyes. They sway back and forth with each other. Locked in love and faith. Locked in divine understanding and ultimate submission. Locked in a kind of holiness thus far known only to three people in all the world.
Elizabeth steps aside, lets Mary in, and shuts the gate.
Mary lays her hands on Aunt Elizabeth’s shoulders. They look into each other’s eyes through glistening tear drops, and weep all over again. Their embrace returns as before.
“Aunt Elizabeth. Aunt Elizabeth,” Mary whispers. “It was an angel after all. It was God’s true message.”
She pauses, slowly gaining control of tears still wishing to slip down her dusty cheeks.
“I know now that I am really pregnant with the Son of God. Oh, Aunt Elizabeth, how could it be happening to me, of all the girls in the universe?”
Elizabeth pulls back and puts Mary’s hand on her protruding womb. “He’s kicking, Mary,” she whispers with a grin. “Feel him!”
She puts Mary’s hand in her own. “He’s leaping with joy even inside my womb,” she says a little louder. “He can hear us talk. He knows. He knows, just as you and I know.”
Elizabeth smiles at Mary. “Not only has your faith been confirmed by me, but my faith has been confirmed by you, dear sweet Mary.”
“You are so favored by God!” she exclaims excitedly. “You, Mary, are favored above all other women in history.”
Could this be Elizabeth talking? Shy Elizabeth? What is happening to her?
The older woman hugs Mary once more, then continues as though telling the whole world. “Your baby, Mary, will be given God’s mightiest esteem! What an honor this is, that the mother of my Deliverer should visit me!”
Mary blushes at the role reversal she is feeling. After all, she is just a teenager, and her elderly cousin is looking up to her.
Zechariah, on the other side of the courtyard, realizes his wife has left his side and gone to the gate. She isn’t back yet. He wonders if she needs help getting rid of a peddler.
He walks in that direction, then sees his wife with a younger woman he seems to remember, but older now. “Zechariah, it’s Mary!” she announces to him.
Zechariah looks at the young lady, smiles, and under that scratches, “D-E-L-I-V-E-R-E-R?”
Both women nod their heads yes. Zechariah holds out his arms and embraces his young cousin. So many blessings in this one family. How could it be so?
Zechariah responds to Mary with special understanding, for he had been told by the angel months before even Mary knew. Thank you, God! his heart shouts.
Now the message is a reality. Hardly able to control his happiness, he mouths the words bursting within his soul. “Thank you, God.,” and he raises his arms toward heaven.
Knowing he cannot converse with the women, he goes over to his wife’s favorite cushion, pushes it over a little, and makes room for a new one set aside for guests.
Satisfied, he returns to his earlier task. He picks up the little stick figure he’s been carving. But his hands are shaking so, he puts his work back down. Instead, he stares into the hearts of his family. And of mankind.
The women need to talk. It will be good for my Elizabeth. I can already tell a big difference in her.
Elizabeth moves around to Mary’s side and directs her toward their seats. Elizabeth shifts them around a little so she and Mary can sit opposite each other. The two women rejoin hands and look into each other’s eyes. Elizabeth continues in an excited whisper. Like sharing a delightful secret.
“When you came in and greeted me,” Elizabeth explains, “the instant I heard your voice, my baby moved in me for joy!”
“All those prophecies the angel explained to me,” Mary relates, “all those things predicted hundreds of years ago…”
“You believed that God would do what he said, Mary. That is why he has given you this wonderful blessing.”
“I’m about to burst,” Mary explains. “I’m delirious with delight! God chose me above all other women in the world. Me. It is true. It is really true.”
“Oh, Mary, I’m so happy for you.”
“God is now going to show how strong he is before our tyrannical government,” Mary declares. “He’s going to pull them out of power, and in their places put their victims. At last the oppressed poor will have the money of the rich so they can live decently. He has protected every generation, and he will protect ours.”
Elizabeth hadn’t realized her young cousin knew so much about what is happening in their country. After all, she lives up north away from all the politics around Jerusalem.
The women stare at each other in silence, knowing how unable they are to truly express the inexpressible. Moments later, Elizabeth interrupts their thoughts with the more down-to-earth matters.
“Oh, you must be starved, child. Sit right there while I warm up some stew for you.”
Zechariah smiles as he watches his wife become her old self again.
Stew duly consumed, Elizabeth escorts her young cousin to a bedroom. Mary’s tote is already in it. “This is our guest room. We want you to stay as long as you need to.”
“Aunt Elizabeth, I don’t know how to tell everyone back home. I don’t know how to explain it. It was hard enough for me to believe, and I saw the angel in person. How am I ever going to explain it to my family? And my neighbors? And my Joseph?”
Such questions. How can Elizabeth help Mary with them when she has so many questions of her own?
“We’ll exchange some ideas about it in the morning,” she replies. “And, Mary, I’m so glad you came. For selfish reasons I’m glad. I needed someone to talk to.”
Days come and go. Mary gets settled in. She does everything she can to take work off Elizabeth so she can rest as much as possible. Mary even does the daily food shopping for her, and the laundry. But Elizabeth insists on doing the cooking. She loves to cook. So Mary cleans up afterward.
“Mary, can you read?” Elizabeth asks after lunch and their afternoon naps.
“Yes. I guess I’m lucky. My grandfather, Matthat, taught me to read. He said I had a good mind and should be able to read the scriptures so I can teach them to my children.
“He didn’t rely on whoever you married someday being able to read?” Elizabeth asks.
“I don’t know. I guess my grandfather didn’t think our village rabbi understood the scriptures as much as he should.”
“Making sure the women in the family could read has apparently been a tradition in both our families,” Elizabeth explains.
That evening, Elizabeth pulls out two scripture scrolls, handing one to Mary.
“Okay. We’re going to read until we find a prophecy about our respective sons,” Elizabeth instructs.
All becomes quiet. Zechariah looks over to them sometimes nodding approval and admiration.
“Look, Aunt Elizabeth,” Mary says excitedly. “The prophet Malachi said your son will be as great as the prophet Elijah, and will turn the hearts of the fathers to their families instead of fighting.”
“Look here what I found,” Elizabeth responds. She had long ago memorized the psalms of David but knows Mary needs to see them in writing. “David prophesied your son will rule forever.”
Taking Mary’s hand and looking deep into her eyes, “You are blessed above all women, sweet Mary.”
Then back to searching through the scriptures. Excited with the revelation of one prophecy, and awed by another. Alternately elated and filled with wonder. A little at a time building up each other’s confidence. And their own.
Gradually, the two women adjust their routine. Elizabeth sleeps a little longer in the morning. Mary can’t eat in the morning. But she does manage to prepare some kind of breakfast for Zechariah and Elizabeth by the time they are up. They have to eat it away from her, though. If she is around food too long in the morning, she becomes nauseated.
And they talk. Talk and encourage and reassure.
“Oh, Aunt Elizabeth, how am I ever going to raise God’s Son? I won’t know what to say or do.”
“Just be the kind of mother your mother has been to you,” Elizabeth explains. “God wants you to take care of the human side of his Son. That’s all. God will take care of the rest.”
Housework, napping, meals and going for walks fill their days. Reading God’s Word for explanations of their sons fill their evenings. And the prayers. After listening to God talk to them, needing to talk to God.
“Please help us raise our babies,” Elizabeth prays.
“Yes, God, we are just human. We will need your help,” Mary adds.
Mary eventually takes over the responsibility of preparing the evening meals. With Elizabeth now in her seventh month, Mary does as much as she can for her. She always finds out what Zechariah is in the mood to eat for his dinner from his scratches on his tablet.
Elizabeth sits nearby on her cushions. From there she tells Mary where everything is she needs for the meal. They chat almost unendingly. Always something to talk through.
Sometimes up. Sometimes down. Their emotions. Wondering why them. Then accepting the best they know how. Then excitement. Then back to doubt. And all over again.
Now and then Zechariah wanders over to them and stands with his head bobbing back and forth between the two women, watching them talk and reply to each other. Then he grins, points to his useless mouth, and shrugs his shoulders as though to say, “It’s just as well I’m unable to talk; I couldn’t fit a word in anyway.”
The women know what he means and grin, handing him a goblet of juice to occupy his stomach until meal time.
Mary’s womb is beginning to swell some now. She has no more doubts that she is indeed pregnant. As pregnant as Elizabeth.
“Sometimes I’m really afraid of what my family will do,” Mary tells her one day.
“You know, Mary, you have the scriptures to back you up.”
“Even if they do believe me, our neighbors won’t. They’ll be so cruel to us.”
“You had your choice, Mary. You could have stayed there and quickly married Joseph, and no one would have been the wiser. But proving that you conceived, even though a virgin, was vital and you knew it. You had the wisdom to come here away from Joseph. That took a lot of courage. God knew you were brave. You’ll survive through the neighbor’s taunts. You’re strong.”
“But the neighbors, Aunt Elizabeth, will want to have me arrested for committing adultery.”
“Joseph is the one who will have to press charges. If he is the kind of young man you say he is, I just don’t believe he’ll do it.”
“I’m scared, Aunt Elizabeth. What if they succeed in stoning me? I am so scared.”
“They won’t. You’re carrying God’s Son. He will protect you. Somehow.”
Elizabeth sounds so strong and wise when she gives advice to others. Deep down, she wonders about how she will deal with her own life. Will she have the courage to teach little John courage?
God, don’t let me fear the crowds like I do, she prays without Mary knowing.
The days go by. Then weeks. Elizabeth is now eight months along in her miracle pregnancy.
The elderly woman rests more and more. Mary spends more time taking over responsibilities of the house, and rests herself. She prays alone, then asks Elizabeth for the answer.
“God, will help you raise your baby. God will help your family understand. And Joseph will understand,” Elizabeth repeats to Mary as she has so often. “Joseph will love you and still want you, Mary. If he is the kind of young man you say he is, he will still want you.”
Elizabeth prays yet another prayer. God, help Zechariah and me to live long enough to raise our son. Help us teach him properly. Help him not be like me. I’m so shy. Make him like Zechariah. Zechariah always knows how to handle any situation. Zechariah is brave. Make him like his father.
“There is going to be so much pressure from the neighbors and gossips,” Mary says for the tenth time in two days. “They won’t believe me. I know they won’t. They’ll think my baby is illegitimate. They’ll treat us terribly. I don’t think I can take that.”
“You are officially betrothed to Joseph,” Elizabeth replies as she always does. “He will stand by you and give you courage, just like Zechariah stands by me. He’ll help you face the neighbors and everyone else. You just wait and see.”
“But what if Joseph won’t finalize our marriage?”
“Have faith in God,” Elizabeth advises both Mary and herself. “God will help Joseph through all this. I believe your Joseph will play an important role in your baby’s upbringing.”
“I keep praying he will, Aunt Elizabeth. I keep praying he will. I love him so.”
Days go by. And weeks. Elizabeth is now in her ninth month.
“The responsibility of raising God’s baby is overwhelming,” Mary repeats one morning, absent-mindedly laying a freshly-washed plate in her lap. “Can I do it?”
“If the Lord hadn’t believed you could handle it, child, he wouldn’t have chosen you,” Elizabeth always replies. Once more, God has used Mary to give his answers to Elizabeth herself.
“But my family.”
“You have a good family. Once you have had a chance to sit down with them and point out the fulfillment of the prophecies made about our Deliverer hundreds of years ago, they will believe. Besides, my own baby will be proof to them, just like it was to you. I know them. Their faith has survived many things,” Elizabeth continues, trying to maintain her self-confidence for Mary’s sake. “It will survive this too.”
“Do you think it will help if you sent my parents a letter? Kind of warning them that I’ll have some shocking news? I’m three months along now. I can’t hide it.”
“I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll write them a letter you can take home with you after you’ve seen little John for yourself.”
Two days later, just as the sun is half way to its noon-time pinnacle, Mary is pleased to assist in the birth of the miracle baby of Zechariah and Elizabeth as he is presented to the world. In a little house of a relatively unknown priest. To a woman too shy to be a miracle mother.
Aunt Elizabeth holds her gift from God and weeps in deep joy.
“Who would have ever thought I would finally have my own baby to rock and love like all the other women? Who would have ever thought any of this would happen? Oh, God. Thank you. Thank you.”
Mary watches as Elizabeth hands the baby to her husband, then leaves the room.
For a moment filled with holiness, the threesome, all gifts from God to each other, merge in heart and soul. The impossible has grown from a spark of hope to a blaze of glory. The impossible has emerged from the horizon of doubt to shining victory. The impossible has become possible.
Zechariah thinks to himself, “At last a son to pass on the family name. Our family will not die out after all.”
Zechariah is wrong. His son will grow up, announce the Deliverer, and be executed as a political threat. Without a wife, a son of his own and a grandson for Zechariah. But for now, Zechariah does not know any of this. It is just as well.
“Mary,” Elizabeth whispers to her husband, half breaking the spell. “She needs to hold our miracle.”
Zechariah understands and takes the baby to Mary who has been waiting out in the courtyard. This had been their moment. Surely this means her moment will come too.
Mary takes the miracle baby in her arms. He opens his eyes briefly and speaks to her heart. She instinctively kisses him on the cheek, then holds that cheek next to her own. How warm it is. How warm and reassuring the God of love is. The Life Giver. The Miracle Maker.
She takes the precious baby in to Elizabeth and hands him back to his mother ever so gently. Elizabeth and Mary smile. Their hearts touch. Miracles do happen. Mary believes now that she can handle anything.
Two weeks later Mary decides it is time to return home. Zechariah’s voice had returned to him a week earlier. Everything is okay in their home now. Very okay. Mary knows it is now time to face her parents. Her neighbors. Her Joseph.
The next morning at dawn, Mary peaks in Elizabeth’s room to say good-bye. Luckily, she is awake. The two women embrace.
“Our sons. They’ll be friends someday,” Mary says walking slowly backward toward the door.
“Yes, they will. Perhaps they already are.”