Bible Study | December 1, 2023

The Faith of Elizabeth and Mary

Two pregnant women by a river
Photo by Juli Kosolapova on

Luke 1:36-45, 56

This text begins just as the angel Gabriel winds up his speech to Mary. The account of his visit begins in Luke 1:26, when Gabriel appears to Mary in her hometown of Nazareth in the region of Galilee.

As he greeted her, Mary, of course, was surprised. Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid, and then he got right to the point. He said she had found favor with God, and that she would conceive and bear a son whom she would name Jesus. Mary questioned the practicality of Gabriel’s message by asking how this could happen to a virgin. Gabriel replied by indicating the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and that the child would be holy, the Son of God.

A similar exchange had taken place earlier between Gabriel and Zechariah (1:11-20). Gabriel told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, whom they would name John. John would precede Jesus and prepare people for his coming.

Like Mary, Zechariah questioned the practicality of Gabriel’s words. He was unable to see how Elizabeth could bear a son since he was an old man and Elizabeth was getting old as well. Instead of being sympathetic and supportive, as he was when Mary questioned how she could bear a child, Gabriel treated Zechariah harshly and punished him because of his skepticism.

The difference is striking. When Zechariah expressed doubt about what Gabriel told him, Gabriel rendered him mute until John’s birth. Conversely, when Mary expressed doubt regarding Gabriel’s message, he treated her gently and provided her with additional explanation and reassurance. The fact that Gabriel gave special treatment to Mary over Zechariah indicates that Mary assumed center stage in the narrative. As we will find, Zechariah and Elizabeth are still important characters, but Mary is the focal point.

Mission impossible

Gabriel concluded his speech to Mary by stating that her relative Elizabeth had also conceived a son. This revelation seems to serve as a sign to Mary that the angel’s word was true. If God could allow Elizabeth to bear a child in her old age, then Mary could give birth through her virginal status as well.

Then Gabriel spoke those very important words: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” They serve as words of assurance that Gabriel’s proclamation about the birth of Jesus is not simply wishful thinking but an indication that God has the power to bring this proclamation to fruition. A barren woman can give birth to a child. A virgin can become pregnant. The Lord can live among humans from birth to death and rise again from the tomb. The Holy Spirit can empower a few believers to launch a church movement that will travel to the ends of the earth. God’s power can transform the impossible into the possible for the good of the kingdom.

As unusual as Gabriel’s message may have appeared to Mary, she jumped on board and said she would be God’s servant and go along with everything that Gabriel proclaimed.

We all know what it is like to face impossible situations. We may be in a failing marriage and can’t imagine a path toward reconciliation. We may have lost a spouse of many years to death and can’t see how we can live without them. Perhaps every job we applied for went to someone else and we wonder if we will ever be gainfully employed. When a family loses a home and everything they own to a catastrophic event such as a hurricane, flood, earthquake, or tornado, how is it possible to envision a life with some sense of normalcy again? Some people never recover from such events—but many do, as they allow perseverance, faith in God, and the support of others to propel them forward.

In his book, The Meanest Man in Patrick County and Other Unlikely Brethren Heroes, Frank Ramirez tells the story of P. R. Wrightsman, who was a doctor, farmer, and Brethren minister during the American Civil War. One day Confederate soldiers looted Wrightsman’s farm. They stole about a dozen horses and most of his crops. During the looting, Wrightsman stepped into his barn and prayed to God. He prayed for his own deliverance, and he prayed that God would have mercy on the looters and redeem them from their evil ways.

After he stepped out of the barn, he viewed the soldiers from a different perspective. He observed their emaciated bodies due to hunger. He noticed the poor condition of their clothing and the fact that a number of them were shoeless.

Upon seeing the pain of the soldiers, he also felt God’s love for them despite what they were doing. He brought out bread and butter and fed all the soldiers. They wondered how he could treat them with kindness after what they had done to his farm. Wrightsman simply said that Jesus taught us to feed the hungry and to turn the other cheek.

Wrightsman could have responded differently. He could have been angry or resentful. He could have defended his farm with force and violence. Instead, he fed the soldiers and sent them on their way. With faith and trust in God nothing is impossible. Wrightsman responded in a way that was contrary to retaliation but consistent with Jesus’ teachings. What a difficult thing to do. But in this case, the difficult and virtually impossible action toward his enemies became possible through faith and prayer.

The visitation

After Mary accepted Gabriel’s message and expressed her willingness to be part of God’s plan, the angel left. Mary then quickly made her way to an unnamed village in the Judean hills to visit Elizabeth. Until this point, the storylines of Elizabeth/John and Mary/Jesus were separate. Gabriel visited Zechariah and told him Elizabeth would give birth to John. Then Gabriel visited Mary and told her about the upcoming birth of Jesus.

The two stories merge when Gabriel informs Mary of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and when Mary hurries to see her. As readers, we know this is important because, at the point when Mary entered the house, John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb and the Holy Spirit came upon Elizabeth. We have two women who are relatives, and they each face unusual and mysterious births which an angel of God explained to them. Now they are in the same place so they can experience the immediate and uncertain future together.

Once the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth, she offered a spirit-filled message to Mary. This message neatly divides into four parts. First, Elizabeth declared the blessedness of Mary and her child. Second, in the form of a question, Elizabeth disclosed more explicitly the identity of the child in Mary’s womb as she declared Mary to be the mother of her Lord. Third, Elizabeth explained what it meant when John leapt in her womb: it was a leap of joy. Fourth, the reason Elizabeth called Mary blessed is because Mary believed what Gabriel told her would come to fruition.

There’s a lot of content and theology in these four brief verses. One theme that stands out is that of blessedness. What does it mean to be blessed? Are we blessed because God shows favor upon us as beloved children? Or are we blessed because we believe in God’s ultimate power to transform the impossible into the possible? Elizabeth suggests that Mary is blessed because she believed what Gabriel told her. On the other hand, in verses 28 and 30, Gabriel stresses the notion that God looked upon Mary with much favor.

Another theme that we glean from the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary and Mary’s subsequent visit to Elizabeth is the importance of support and encouragement. Immediately upon learning that Elizabeth was pregnant with John, Mary went to her. When Mary arrived, Elizabeth, without pleasantries and greetings, launched into a speech that confirmed Mary’s specialness during this time.

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before returning home to Nazareth. This gave the two women adequate time to process the impending births of their sons. We know very little of what occurred during this three-month visit, but we can speculate that, due to their family connections and encounters with the divine, they provided each other with mutual support and inspiration.

David A. Leiter is a retired minister in the Church of the Brethren. He lives in Manheim, Pa.