February 22, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah

John F. Fink(Twenty-eighth in a series of columns)

Chronologically, Elizabeth (her name means “worshiper of God”) is the first woman named in the New Testament, in Chapter 1 of the Gospel according to Luke. She was the wife of Zechariah and the mother of St. John the Baptist.

In his account of the Annunciation, Luke has the angel Gabriel refer to Elizabeth as Mary’s relative, nothing more specific.

Earliest traditions say that she was a younger sister of Ann, Mary’s mother, so she would have been Mary’s aunt. Ann, though, doesn’t appear in the Gospels so she technically was not a biblical woman. Her name comes from the early writing known as the Protevangelium of James, which tells of events that occurred before those in the Gospels.

Elizabeth and Zechariah lived in the hill country of Judea, in modern Ein Karem, a suburb of Jerusalem. Like some of the great women of the Old Testament (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the mother of Samson, Hannah), Elizabeth was childless and had reached menopause. Then the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, and told him that he and Elizabeth would have a child and that the child should be called John.

Elizabeth did become pregnant shortly after that. As was customary, she went into seclusion, but she rejoiced that the Lord “has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others” (Lk 1:25). Jews at the time considered barrenness as punishment for sin.

When Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, she had a surprise visit from her niece, Mary. This scene, the Visitation, has been painted by many great artists.

Miraculous things occurred when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, greeted Elizabeth.

First, as Elizabeth told her, “the infant in my womb leaped for joy” at the presence of Jesus (Lk 1:44). Some theologians have taught that this was a sign that John had been cleansed of original sin. (Only Jesus and Mary were conceived without original sin.) This fulfilled the promise made to Zechariah by Gabriel, who said about John, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Lk 1:15).

Then Elizabeth herself was cleansed from original sin since Luke says that she, too, was filled with the Holy Spirit. She cried out to Mary, “Most blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42), words that would become part of the Hail Mary.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months so it is assumed that she was there to assist at John’s birth. It would be strange for her to stay with Elizabeth up to the time the birth was imminent and then leave.

Eight days after the baby’s birth, friends and neighbors gathered for his circumcision. They were surprised when Elizabeth announced that his name would be John. They even argued with her, pointing out that no one in the family had that name.

Zechariah, who had been unable to speak since Gabriel appeared to him, settled the matter when he wrote on a tablet, “His name is John” (Lk 1:63).

We know nothing more about Elizabeth and Zechariah. †

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