“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Galatians 4:4). But few of the many who were praying and looking for the Messiah’s arrival recognized him when he came. The manner and form of his Advent, like the culmination of his salvific mission some three decades later, did not match their expectations. Both were more disturbing and wonderful than anyone imagined. Christmas truly proves that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37) — something two mothers, the teenage Mary and the middle-aged Elizabeth, witnessed in extraordinarily personal ways.
Luke tells the stories of the angel Gabriel delivering different divine promises to Zechariah, regarding John the Baptist, and to Mary, regarding Jesus the Messiah. Each report tells of how these saints responded to God in faith. And the responses are different. The two threads are beautifully woven together when Mary travels to stay with Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth. In the end, we see God’s redeeming grace manifest in both.
Imagine a conversation between Mary and Elizabeth, shortly after the astounding moment when, upon meeting for the first time since both had become unexpectedly pregnant, they each erupted in worship (Luke 1:39–55).
The two women stood near the doorway for a moment in a holy silence, their teary eyes locked on each other’s in holy wonder, their hands on their abdomens holding holy children — Elizabeth’s belly noticeably swollen. Then Elizabeth quietly repeated what Mary had just exclaimed: “Holy is his name.”
Mary breathed heavily and steadied herself on the doorpost. A miraculous conception wasn’t sparing her waves of early-pregnancy nausea. “O Mary! Come sit down. What am I thinking?” Elizabeth guided her to a stool near the table. “You must be exhausted — and hungry! When was the last time you ate?”
“This morning,” said Mary. Elizabeth already had two small bread loaves on a platter.
“Well,” said Elizabeth, adding a healthy cluster of grapes, “no wonder you feel weak!” A few dates and olives were added, and she set the dish before the young mother, not yet sixteen. “Eat!” she commanded with maternal kindness, while pouring two cups of water. “Did you walk all the way from Nazareth?”
“Not all the way,” smiled Mary. “The Lord sent me a few kind strangers with carts.”
As Elizabeth handed Mary her cup, she said, “It must have taken you, what, four days?” Then she stopped and stared at Mary for a moment, perplexed. “What brought you here, Mary?”
“I was told that you were also expecting a child,” Mary replied, “and I knew you, more than anyone, would understand my . . . situation.”
“But hardly anyone even knows I’m pregnant,” said Elizabeth. “We kept it a secret for five months. I just recently began to tell others. Who in Nazareth could possibly know yet?”
Mary paused, and then said, “An angel told me.”
Elizabeth smiled knowingly. “Ah, I had a feeling,” she said. “Was it Gabriel?”
Mary’s eyes widened. “Yes! Did he come to you too?” she asked.
“Not me. Zechariah — when he was offering incense in the temple.”
“What did he say to Zechariah?”
“Well,” said Elizabeth, “I’m not sure I have the whole story yet. Zechariah hasn’t been able to talk about it.”
“Is he not allowed to tell you?” asked Mary.
“No, he’s allowed; he just can’t tell me. The angel made him deaf and mute. Zechariah can write, but no one who knows we’re expecting can read. So, all I know is what I’ve gathered from hand gestures and lip-reading. But I know that the angel Gabriel appeared to him, told him that we were going to have a child — after all these years! — that we’re to name him John, that he’s not to have wine or strong drink, and that he will be a prophet like Elijah.”
Mary looked down thoughtfully. Then quietly, almost speaking to herself, said, “Elijah . . . ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet’ . . .”
Elizabeth picked up on the quote and finished it, “. . . before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). They again locked eyes in holy wonder, and instinctively again placed their hands on their holy abdomens.
Then Elizabeth said, “That’s why he leaped, Mary!” She reached for Mary’s hand. “That’s why my baby John leaped for joy when we heard your voice! He wasn’t just rejoicing at the voice of the mother of our Lord. He sensed the presence of the One whose way he is to prepare!” Another holy silence. More holy tears. The Holy Spirit was powerfully present.
“Did the angel give you a name for your son?” asked Elizabeth.
“He said, ‘You shall call his name Jesus,’” said Mary. “Jesus . . .” savored Elizabeth, “The Messiah’s name is Jesus . . . Yahweh saves. Of course that’s his name.”
“And your John’s name,” said Mary. “Yahweh is gracious.” Elizabeth bowed her head to stem the tears.
“The Lord is very, very gracious to grant this old woman disgraced with barrenness the privilege of bringing his prophet into the world.” Then looking back up, she said, “And to bring the very young mother of my Lord . . .” Then it hit her.
“Mary! Did you have a wedding, and I didn’t hear about it?”
“No,” Mary replied, “I am still betrothed — to Joseph.” Elizabeth looked more confused. “I’ve not been with Joseph, or any man,” Mary said quietly. “The angel told me, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God.’”
Elizabeth gaped in wonder. Then she put her hand to her mouth and her eyes shone with joy. “That’s what it meant!” she said.
“What?” asked Mary.
Elizabeth said, “Those words that poured out when I saw you: ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’ I could tell the Holy Spirit was moving me to speak, and now I know fully what those words meant: You believed! You believed the angel of the Lord, even when he told you that your pregnancy would be a miracle — a pregnancy like no one else has ever experienced!” Mary smiled meekly.
Reaching for Mary’s hand again, Elizabeth said, “We don’t all have such great faith, Mary. Zechariah won’t mind if I tell you this. Like I said, I don’t know all the details yet, but I know the angel struck Zechariah mute because, when he heard the angel’s message, it seemed unbelievable. I mean, we’re old. We had stopped hoping. Anyway, Zechariah somehow questioned Gabriel and was disciplined.”
Mary smiled and said, “When the angel told me you were pregnant, he said, ‘for nothing will be impossible with God.’”
“He said that?” asked Elizabeth.
Mary nodded and said, “It was a gift to me to know that I’m not alone — that there’s someone who would understand my . . . situation. But I think it might be a gift for you too, to help you know that God is gracious to those he calls to believe what seems impossible to them.”
“Oh, God is gracious,” said Elizabeth. More tears. “But you, precious Mary. We struggled to believe God’s promise for what seemed impossible to us. But you believed God’s promise for what really is impossible with man. You didn’t have to be convinced that nothing is impossible for God.
“O Mary, blessed are you among women. And blessed is the fruit of your womb. And holy is his name.” Elizabeth paused just to savor it again. “Jesus.”
Zechariah’s and Mary’s different responses to Gabriel’s announcements fit the pattern woven throughout Scripture: saints experiencing glorious moments of great faith and ignoble moments of stumbling, weak faith. And usually the more Scripture tells us of saints’ lives, the more likely we are to see them experience both kinds of moments. Which is a mercy to us, since “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2) and know what it’s like to cry, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
This Christmas, whatever promises of God you are struggling to believe, remember Jesus — that Yahweh saves. And remember John — that Yahweh is gracious. And even if you, like Zechariah, are struggling to believe God’s promise because it just seems impossible to be true, God is still gracious with you, even if that means he first disciplines you to help you see and receive his steadfast love and mercy.
Christmas indeed reminds us that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).