I was named after the wrong ancestor. My parents, proud of our Levite heritage, named me after Elisheba, Aaron’s wife. But I should have been named Sarai after my foremother whose arms were empty for so much of her life. The ancestor who bore the same burden of barrenness that I bear, this same badge of shame.
Elizabeth – My God is bountiful. That is not my experience of God. My name mocks me, reminding me that others experience this goodness of God that I do not. That others taste and see that the Lord is good, while I have waited and waited and waited, yet I seem to be passed over. And now I am old. My childbearing years are over. My arms remain empty. And I fight daily against an empty heart as well.
Zechariah helps me keep my sanity. My sweet Zechariah. How many nights have my tears soaked his tunic, his hand stroking my hair as I have cried myself to sleep in his arms? Somehow he has held onto his faith. Somehow his name has been his truth, and when I turn to him in tears, he reminds me, Yahweh has remembered; Yahweh will remember us.
But this week I find myself alone again. Zechariah’s turn to serve in the temple has come again, and he has gone to Jerusalem to do his priestly duty. My husband loves his work, loves shepherding his flock, calling the people to turn their hearts toward God. He has been faithful to God and has served diligently as a priest, and yet his reward has been to suffer the whispers and suspicions of our neighbours, wondering what sins we have committed and kept hidden to deserve our childlessness.
So without Zechariah, I cry myself to sleep alone, asking Yahweh why he has not remembered me. Asking myself why I cannot abandon God the way God seems to have abandoned me.
Sabbath comes. The blueness of the sky and the bright sunlight seem to mock me as I make my way to the synagogue. By now, I am used to the sidelong glances from the other women, their hesitation to befriend. They sit next to me in the synagogue only when the other seats are full. It’s not their fault, really. They are just sure that my barrenness is a curse from God, a sign of punishment. If only God would vindicate me! If only God would show them that my conscience is clear, speak on my behalf! If only I could stop caring what they think. If only my heart were truly as empty as I wish it were, and I were actually immune to the pain, as I pretend to be.
The scroll is unfurled and the reading begins from Isaiah. “‘Sing barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,’ says the Lord.”
I stiffen my back. Suddenly each woman around me is still, afraid to move, afraid to even breathe. No eyes are cast in my direction, no one turns to look at me, but I feel the weight of everybody’s attention, keenly focused on me.
I keep my eyes open and stare directly ahead. But I close my ears and I close my heart. I don’t hear another word of the reading.
Sunrise, sunset. In my numbness, the week passes in a blur. After the next Sabbath, I look up from the herbs I am gathering to see Zechariah hurrying toward me, followed by a small group of men. I want to rush forward and let him gather me into his arms, but the presence of the men prevents me. My husband lifts his hand to wave a greeting to me, and before I have a chance to wonder why he is surrounded by men I barely know and why he is not greeting me, they rush over themselves to explain, their words tripping over each other. They are talking about an angel and good news and I suddenly catch the words, “You will bear a son!” I almost laugh at the thought of that, and think maybe I really should have been named for Sarah. But then I catch the look in Zechariah’s eyes and clamp shut my mouth and finally the men realize that we are paying them no attention and leave. And then we are inside, and in signs and without his voice, Zechariah is explaining to me that it’s true, an angel did visit him and promise us a son, and his inability to speak is a sign or a punishment and he will be able to speak again only when our son is born.
And tonight it is Zechariah’s tears soaking my tunic, only his tears stem from his great joy. And I stroke Zechariah’s hair, murmuring to him, wondering if it can really be. I think back again to my foremother Sarah. Suddenly her laughter bubbles up inside me, only it is not the laughter of deprecation and doubt. It is the laughter of joy and hope and promise, of something new being conceived. “Zechariah,” I whisper. “Zechariah, Yahweh has not forgotten me!”
When the growing season comes, warmth returns to the world incrementally. Seeds grow underground for days before their tender green heads pop up above soil. So it is with the changes inside my body. Days go by while I caress my stomach in wonder at this miracle taking place inside me. Then, as slow tendrils of green unfurl in the world around, slow tendrils of growth unfurl in my body.
As time passes, my heart begins to thaw as well. Seeds that had lain dormant for decades suddenly pop their heads above the soil. Tender shoots of joy in my daily work where before there was only the bitter resentment of work never finished. A smile for my neighbour chasing her toddling son through the dirt where before there was only the bitter resentment of empty arms. A heart hardened after years of pain is slowly, incrementally warmed.
My body grows so slowly that each day I cannot see a difference, and yet over time the changes are obvious. My heart grows in the same way – only its changes are bigger still than the ones taking place in my body. God has taken away my disgrace. My heart is light. I am filled with a quiet joy. I think back to the words I heard read aloud in the synagogue on the Sabbath when Zechariah was visited by the angel. The words were a reproach to me then, but now, my heart does burst into song, that song even overflowing occasionally to my lips.
I stay in seclusion, letting my body prepare itself for the work ahead of growing and birthing this child. Letting my heart prepare itself for the new work of motherhood. Letting my spirit be restored from the years of pain.
My cousin Mary comes to visit. When she sends word that she will arrive, I first assume that it is out of concern for my seclusion. But when I see her face radiating with the same peace that I now feel, I know that is not her purpose. And my son, my yet unborn son, leaps inside me, his joy an echo of my own, confirming what I know in my heart.
I pull Mary into my arms. “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the child you will bear!” I feel Mary first stiffen in surprise, surely wondering how I know. But as I keep my arms around her, she melts back into my embrace. She has experienced the miraculous enough to allow her to know that which she cannot understand. Finally, we step back, both brushing tears from our cheeks.
“Why am I so favoured,” I ask my cousin, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary’s eyes overflow with tears again. She does not need to answer. I tell Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
I may have doubted, but Mary believed. Nevertheless, now Yahweh has turned my doubt to faith, turned my heartache to joy.
Mary stays several weeks with me. We spend much time letting praise overflow from our hearts, singing together in our work. But at other times, words are not necessary, and we sit silently as our hearts contemplate all that God has done.
The time for the baby comes. My old body groans and cries out with the pain of labour. But my heart overflows with joy. The pain and the tears and the sweat and the blood mingle, and in the midst of this pain something new is birthed, something that had been conceived in me at the same time as this baby: hope and joy and mystery and wonder.
The midwife places the baby in my arms. I recall the name the angel gave to Zechariah: John. The Lord has shown favour. Yes. And my own name is a truth I now know to the depths of my soul: My God is bountiful.