What a time it was! What days those were! When I think back on them now, I am amazed at how natural and normal it all felt and yet how grace-filled and sacred.
But let me start from the beginning. My dear husband, Zechariah was a fine husband. I did not know him well when we got married but he was a priest of Abijah and was a very good and holy man. I grew to love him and he would often sit next to me by the fire and put his hand on mine and say, “Elizabeth, we will fill our house with children!” and we would laugh and talk of names for the children we would have. I often said we must have a young Zechariah running in the house, one who will like my olive bread and lamb as much as his father. Whenever I said that, my husband would smile with great joy. Our second son, he would then declare, would be named after my own mother's father, Aaron!
In those early years, we waited each month, knowing that soon we would begin our family. But it was not meant to be. As my sisters and my kinswomen had more and more children, Zechariah and I waited with hope. And then we stopped waiting.
It was not that we no longer had hope, but the pain was too great. We knew that with each passing year, I brought on my family the shame of being barren. Many believed that it was a punishment for something we had done, but Zechariah and I could not feel that in our hearts. My family and friends were gentle with me and I helped them often in their time of confinement and loved their children.
As the years went by, Zechariah and I deepened our love and found great joy in each other. We shared the pain of being childless but it brought us closer together in many ways. We were together much of the time, and I missed him terribly twice a year when he spent a week in Jerusalem to serve his priestly duty in the Temple.
It was in one of those weeks at the Temple that the wonder began. Zechariah was chosen by lot, as was tradition, to enter the sanctuary alone. As the assembly prayed outside the tabernacle, Zechariah went in alone to pray and to burn incense. As he stood there with his arms raised in prayer, he suddenly knew there was someone with him — an angel! Zechariah was getting along in years and he shook his head, wondering if this was a dream. His old knees began to tremble with fear.
But the angel began to speak in a voice that somehow sounded like a harp, with beauty and warmth. He said his name was Gabriel. As he spoke, Zechariah did not think he was hearing correctly. Did the angel tell Zechariah that his wife would have a child? At the time when most of our friends were grandparents, he could not understand this. He shook his head to clear his ears, but the musical voice of Gabriel continued. We would have a son and name him John.
He shook his head again and tried to concentrate. What was Gabriel saying? It was impossible! He steadied himself on the altar and stammered out his question: How could this be? We are both so old!
The loving music of Gabriel's voice filled the small room again. Zechariah had asked for a sign and so would be given one: he would have no voice until these things were fulfilled. Then he vanished.
Later, after he had come out of the sanctuary to a puzzled crowd, after he had made the silent journey home, he tried to explain what had happened. He could not speak but our years together had made us able to communicate and I understood the story he told, but really - who could believe it? A baby at my age?
Yet ... I knew something had happened to Zechariah, something sacred, and in his quiet he had a peace about him that was unfamiliar. Sometimes as I laid the wet laundry on the roof to dry in the sun I would stop and wonder: what if it was real? Could it be? But, no. I had work to do and no time for day-dreaming this stuff of my younger years. I shrugged it off and continued with my work.
It wasn't for many months - mid-summer - that I finally began to believe. I felt different and I knew from so many years of helping my kinswomen that these feelings were signs of a new life. I knew, as much in my heart as in my womb: I would have a baby! “Nothing is impossible with God!” I said laughing to Zechariah and he simply smiled and nodded whenever I would talk about it. We held each other and I prayed out loud in gratitude, as was long our custom. Now it was my voice alone, but it seemed that we both were praising God with loud voices!
One day I stood by the water jars in our house. I was now too large to hide my condition to the public and needed to ask a family member to go to the well for me. A commotion outside drew me to the doorway and there was my dear young cousin, Mary! Mary was Joachim and Ann's daughter and had always been dear to me. I was so happy to see her and called for Zechariah within the house. Mary was here!
As we embraced, something happened. I looked deeply into Mary's young face, I could see that she, too was pregnant. I had looked into many young faces and seen pregnancy - sometimes before the mother was even aware. But then, I was given a great gift. From deep in my womb, the baby moved. The baby had often moved in recent weeks but this was different. I felt our young one swirl inside happily and it echoed my own feeling. It was as if the baby was dancing joyfully inside me and telling me what I suddenly knew in my heart: Mary carried the Messiah! I stared and tried to breathe but could only look at Mary and hold her close again.
"You, Mary?" I asked her. "You are with child?" She nodded and smiled again. In the warm sun we sat by the water jars as with great wonder, she told me her story. She smiled and place her hand on my belly. "And you, dear Elizabeth, you are with child! I had to come when I heard."
She paused and dropped her voice. "And I had to come because, well... Joseph. He is angry and I can say no more than the truth to him. It is so difficult."
Zechariah had been praying in the corner as Mary and I spoke but now he rose and came to us. He held his hands over Mary and prayed in his powerful silence. After a few moments, he dropped his hands to her shoulders and smiled down into her eyes. We both understood his wordless message. It is all as it should be. Mary’s trust in the Lord and in the message he had given her make the difference. “Nothing is impossible with God,” she murmured.
Then Mary leaned back, lifted her face and began to sing in prayer as Hannah had done so long ago: "My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord, my mouth speaks boldly against my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation!"
Zechariah took my hand and the baby inside of me kicked and danced with joy.
All of that was a few years ago and so much has happened. Mary stayed with me in my confinement and then returned home in time begin her own confinement and to talk with Joseph. He told her he now understood and he, too, had been visited by an angel.
The census drew them to Bethlehem and Mary had her baby away from her own town, but the three of them have returned home. Now Mary has returned to visit and we sit in the courtyard, watching our boys play in the dust. We laugh at their antics and the games they seem to invent with stones and sticks on the ground.
As neighbor children came to join them in the sand, John proudly introduced his young cousin to everyone. “This is Jesus! He has come from Nazareth to be with me! Come and meet him!”
We laughed and watched our boys and wondered, as all mothers do, what their futures would be. Would John be a priest and Jesus a carpenter? Whatever happened to them, we knew they would cherish each other as long as they lived.
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