What we have here is a story about the turning of the ages. The old Elizabeth – barren like Sarah, barren like Rebekah, barren like Rachel, barren like Hannah – she is having a child because of the generosity of God. She stands for the women of every age who are disregarded and dismissed because they cannot produce for their men – and God provides what their men cannot provide for them.
It’s like the ancient vision of the prophet Isaiah:
Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more numerous
than the children of her that is married.
Something is happening through Elizabeth – the barrenness of centuries of Jewish hopes is now being countered by the grace of God.
And something is happening in Mary, the young unmarried woman. Her child comes as a complete gift, unrequested, unexpected, without the initiation of any man. The Spirit comes upon Mary, and that’s all it takes to have a child. This child of hers will grow to honor women and men as equal children of God. He will push aside the cultural restrictions of his day to speak to women, to heal them, to welcome their support of his work. He counters the world’s disgraceful assessment of women with God’s abundant grace. So it is the women who sing first of his birth, and women who will first share the announcement of his resurrection.
How can this be? It’s because God gives God’s own self to the world. God breathes God’s Breath as a way of pushing open something new. Without the Holy Spirit – without God’s purpose or presence in our lives – we are left only to ourselves. All we have is our own words, our limited hopes, our restricted abilities. But when God comes into our midst, we find ourselves players in a much larger plan.