Elizabeth: Midwife of the New Covenant
For five consecutive days in the Fourth Week of Advent the passages from Luke’s Gospel include Elizabeth. She is never mentioned again by Luke or any other Gospel writer. This glimpse of Elizabeth bears a significance that is not to be missed. Luke establishes her important status by naming her and describing her as blameless and just in the eyes of God. Further, we are told that Elizabeth is a daughter of Aaron, a priestly class. Indeed, she performs a priestly and prophetic role in Luke’s infancy narrative.
Elizabeth provides the connection to our Old Testament faith story and to the roots of Hebrew history. Like several Hebrew women before her (e.g., Sarah, the mother of Samson, and Hannah), Elizabeth is childless until she becomes pregnant at an advanced age. She understands that the new life in her is God’s blessing. Being faithful to the Mosaic Law she probably also understands that her child will play a significant role in God’s plan.
When Mary comes to visit we witness Elizabeth as a prophetess. Before Mary speaks Elizabeth greets her young relative with an amazing proclamation. It is her insight that names the character of Mary’s child. “Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘. . . how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’” (Luke 1:43). She goes on to reveal the mind and action of God when she acknowledges Mary’s encounter with the angel, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).
We have the rare privilege of encountering a conversation between two women in Luke’s Gospel. Mary and Elizabeth acknowledge each other’s blessedness. Then they go on to give us a woman’s perspective on the new covenant that is to be announced with the birth of Jesus. The men, both Zachary and Joseph, are silent. It is these two women who tell us of the radical newness of the reign of God among us. The mighty will be deposed and the lowly raised. The hungry will be given every good thing. Mercy and compassion will characterize those in right relationship with God.
With one foot in the Old Testament and the other in the New Testament, Elizabeth is the midwife of the transition from the old to the new covenant. She is the one who greets Mary and acknowledges her blessedness. She is God’s agent and messenger for her husband and family when she names her son. She is a wisdom figure and mentor for Mary and for each of us. She is a woman who trusts God’s mysterious ways.
After playing a primary role in the story that leads to the birth of Jesus, the spotlight turns away from her. Elizabeth fades completely out of the picture. We think of Elizabeth’s son, John, when we hear the words, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). He learned this humility from his mother.
—Sr. Marianne Race