I’m not sure when hope finally left me, drained from my body. When had it first dawned on me… there would be no child? I’m not sure how old I was, except that I had stopped listening eagerly for stories about other women who’d given birth at extraordinary ages! Women like Sarah! They still existed, didn’t they? I clung to that hope. Well, of course, there was nobody like Sarah. The Torah tells us she gave birth to Isaac when she was 90 years old! Imagine! I do remember this: one day, the thought flew through my head… I was kneading dough for bread, for our supper. I punched the loaf, suddenly angry, and I thought, “Who knows? Maybe even Sarah wasn’t like Sarah.”
I guess that is when I knew that hope was gone. There would be no child. I would have to be content with being the wife of a Temple Priest. I remember when my mother had come to me as I studied a sacred scroll with my father by candlelight. He was an unusual man, my father. We were descended from Aaron the priest, Levites by tribe. When other men asked him—challenged him!—at the wisdom of schooling a girl in the sacred scriptures, he would ask: “And what of Miriam? Aaron’s sister… was she not a prophet? You do not know what the Holy One might ask of my daughter.”
Indeed. No one knew. I was just 16 years old, but already confident enough to challenge my father over a matter of interpretation. That day my mother came in as my father and I were disputing over a verse from the prophet Isaiah—
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”
“Who is speaking?” my father asked… always, his first question.
“Well, I believe it is the voice of the prophet. Hasn’t God anointed Isaiah to bring this message?”
My father’s eyes sparkled in the dark. “But what if this is the voice of someone long awaited? What if God revealed to the prophet the words of the one who is to come… the Messiah?”
My mother slipped into the room, and watched as my father and I pushed and pulled, the give and take of a scholar-in-training and her mentor, as I gained the confidence to stand my ground in my interpretation. At a pause in our conversation, my mother moved quickly to my father, and leaned in to whisper something that I could not hear. She pulled back, and they regarded one another. Then, simultaneously, they both turned to look at me.
I felt a small panic. I knew my parents so well. My mother had always worried that my studies would make it hard for them to find me a husband. Not many men are interested in women who are more educated than they are… it can be a point of contention. I could see that my parents were perfectly at peace with one another, whatever they were about to tell me.
My father rose, and so, I did, too. All three of us stood facing one another; my two parents and me, their suddenly anxious 16-year-old daughter.
“Elizabeth,” my father said, “Your mother and I have agreed to a match. You will marry Zechariah, a young priest in the Temple. He has learned much, he seems wise and settled, and his parents are also pleased with the match. We are happy for you, our daughter. Mazel Tov!”
And there it was! Marriage! I must have look worried, and so my mother spoke quickly.
“Zechariah is pleased that you are a scholar. He thinks it is fitting for the wife of a priest.” She smiled at my father, and then back at me.
So, I was married. There was so much to learn, I neglected my lessons for a time. I thought…well, I thought it wouldn’t be too long before I would be preparing to welcome a baby. And one or two times, that seemed to be happening. But it was not to be… before long I would find my way to my mother’s house, and find myself crying in her arms while she rocked me… as if I were the baby.
My mother could console me, but she couldn’t help me. The herbs the local healer gave us, the prescriptions to eat pomegranate seeds or place mandrake root under the mattress… nothing worked.
Finally, I returned to my studies. I still thought I might have a child, but I saw no sense in staying away from the holy book. Perhaps I might find some wisdom in the scriptures to guide me.
The scroll of Isaiah remained a favorite of mine. “Comfort, O comfort, my people,” the prophet wrote, as God consoled the exiles. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light!” My studies occupied me, and they helped me. They spoke of a God who was eager to console me, trying to shore up my fading hope.
But eventually, that hope was gone—and other hopes with it. I continued to search the scrolls for words of comfort from God, but none came… not for years and years and years… not until the day my grey-headed husband arrived home, unable to speak to his grey-headed wife.
He wasn’t Abraham’s 99 years old, but he was nearing 70 years, and I was just a few years younger. He had been serving in the Temple, and it had been his lot to enter the Holy of Holies. This is a great honor, and a great terror, Zechariah tells me. No priest may enter more than once each year. They say the men who enter The Presence are often struck silent by the great mystery. Under normal circumstances, they recover their tongues in an hour or two. But these were not normal circumstances. Zechariah came home with a tablet to write upon, and informed me that an angel had given him assurances that I would have a child.
This could have been funny, if it hadn’t seemed so cruel. But as the days and then weeks passed, something seemed to be happening to my body, something familiar and yet completely new at the same time. I searched the scriptures for reassurance. I searched for strength. My newly mute husband stayed home from work, and followed me from room to room as if he were suddenly my serving girl. He had a strange sparkle in his eyes.
And then, when I was about six months along, Mary came to visit.
I was sitting beneath a date palm in front of my home, searching for a breeze. I was tired from a morning of the usual chores, tired from being followed around by my silent husband, but hoping to find time to look at the scrolls together with him later in the day. My eyes must have closed for a few moments, I must have drowsed. Then that elusive fresh breeze made me open my eyes, and there she was, standing before me. My young cousin, Mary… the same age as I had been, when Zechariah and I had married. She was just a girl of sixteen. I scrambled to my feet to embrace her.
But there was something about her face that gave me pause… They say women glow when we’re pregnant, but that wasn’t it. Her coloring was high, but that was the exertion of walling in the heat of the day, I am sure. It was the look on her face, an expression of joy mixed with fear… quite an old look on such a young face. She said my name. “Elizabeth…!”
At that moment, I felt such a heaving in my belly, I burst out laughing. The child—Zechariah had scribbled to me, that it was a boy named John. So, John it was. John had positively leaped in my womb!
Have you ever suddenly known something with complete confidence that was simply… absurd? That is what happened to me, for I knew, in an instant, that Mary, too, was pregnant. And the words of Isaiah came tumbling back into my consciousness…
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…”
I knew it. The knowledge filled me, every inch of this old body. “Why do I have this honor,” I asked young Mary, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” I placed my hands on my belly and looked down in wonder. “As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.”
And then Mary was laughing and all appearance of fear vanished from her face. But now I was the one who had a sudden pain of longing in my heart. I took her by the shoulders, as gently as I could, and said, “Happy, blessed is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises made to her.”
Something happened to Mary then. Her eyes darkened and she threw back her head and began to sing.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”
And then… it was as if Isaiah himself stood in front of me, except he was in the form of a young girl. Her face shone, she was lit from within. Her voice rose, as if she were intoning sacred prayers in the Temple. She lifted her arms as if she knew that, of all the world, God Almighty was looking directly at our little village, and that she, Mary, held all his attention.
For of course, that was absolutely true.
“…The Lord has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his children, forever.”
Something happened to me then. Mary’s song did something to me… opened up something in me. Mary’s words… the absolute confidence with which she sang of God our Liberator… it was as if she passed on to me a sensation I had forgotten. Mary restored my hope. Not just hope for a child, my child… hope for all our children. Hope for a future I had stopped believing in, without even realizing it.
There is more than one way to give birth. Some of us give birth with our bodies, young or old. But to sustain us, to sustain our world, we must give birth with our hearts. We must find a way to give birth to hope that is larger than our little lives. That kind of hope—it isn’t just for one woman, or one family. It is a hope for all the ages.
Mary stayed with me three months, and she held my hand and wiped my brow as I labored with my son. And when she left, I could see the hope still strong in her. Enough hope to see her through whatever the God of us all had planned for her, and for that child who made my child leap, and me cry out with joy.
Thanks be to God. Amen.