Today is the feast of the Annunciation, the moment when the angel Gabriel brought very important and unexpected news to Mary. However, this isn’t the only time Gabriel brings news of a child to someone in Scripture. Months before the angel appeared at Mary’s house, he also brought news of another unexpected child to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband, Zechariah.
We only hear briefly of Elizabeth in Scripture. Nevertheless, she holds a powerful place in the life of Jesus, both as his mother’s cousin and as the mother of the prophet John the Baptist. Elizabeth is the first person to recognize that the child Mary is carrying is the savior.
What the gospel of Luke tells us is this: There was an older couple, Zechariah, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth. She was barren, and advanced in age, so they had given up on the possibility of children. Gabriel came to Zechariah while he was alone in the temple, and said: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord. … He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.”
Because Zechariah expressed doubt in Gabriel’s words, he was temporarily struck mute. Elizabeth indeed became pregnant, and remained secluded for five months. During that time Gabriel visited Mary to give her amazing news as well.
A few months later, Mary visited her also-pregnant cousin. Scholars tell us that she travelled almost 100 miles over rough terrain to see Elizabeth. We can surmise that Mary and Elizabeth must have been close. After all, it must have been comforting for Mary to be with a family member who was also dealing with an unexpected pregnancy.
The very moment Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home, there is pure joy shared between the two expectant mothers, perhaps the second most joyful moment in all Scripture after the Nativity. Until then, Elizabeth has no idea of the importance of the children she and Mary are carrying. When she sees her young cousin, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and cries out: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”
Not only does Elizabeth recognize at that moment that Mary is carrying the Messiah, but the connection between mother and unborn child is so strong that the baby, John, “leaps” in her womb.
Scripture tells us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for a lengthy time, three months, then returned home. Not long after, Elizabeth gave birth to John, and Zechariah miraculously regained his voice. The townsfolk were filled with wonder at these events: “All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.”
We hear no more of Elizabeth after that. But the bond between the women is important; clearly, Elizabeth was there as a comfort to Mary. And both Elizabeth and Mary would be connected forever through their shared motherhood of extraordinary sons, who were also connected: John was the prophet who let the world know Jesus was the Messiah.
St. Elizabeth serves as an inspiration to infertile mothers, and mothers of children who were killed.
Her feast day is November 5.
Here’s a lovely blog post about the visit of Mary and Elizabeth: https://bustedhalo.com/ministry-resources/why-does-mary-visit-her-cousin-elizabeth
This book by Catholic syndicated columnist Denise Bossert (denisebossert.com/) is available on Amazon and other retailers: “Gifts of the Visitation: Nine Spiritual Encounters with Mary and Elizabeth”
St. Elizabeth Parish in Wilmington holds a novena to St. Elizabeth on the first Monday of each month. Pregnant women can receive a special blessing at the Mass. For information, https://steparish.org/st-elizabeth-devotion