The third gospel begins with the story of a barren woman. When you take a moment to think about that, it’s pretty shocking.
Two thousand years ago a man named Luke wrote down an eyewitness account about a man named Jesus and then gave it to a man named Theophilus. A story about a man, from a man, to a man – It’s surprising that such a narrative would begin with the story of a woman, and a barren one at that!
Luke determined to “investigate everything from the beginning” and to write “an orderly account” for his friend Theo (Luke 1:3). He knew Jesus was the greatest man to ever live, and not just a man, the Son of Man, which meant GOD. So why didn’t Luke start his gospel with a dramatic Jesus-as-God moment like Jesus’ baptism or one of his miracles? Why begin with a woman? And what exactly are we supposed to learn about Jesus from a barren woman?
In those days, I’m sure a woman’s reproductive status was something everyone knew about (since pregnancy is a three-dimensional experience and you can’t hide resulting children), everyone thought about (because children, especially male children, meant an apprentice for your trade, security in your old age and continued heritage for your family name), but few spoke of. Talk of reproduction was probably reserved for the company of women. But Luke wanted an orderly account of Jesus’ life and that orderly account, in his opinion, had to start with a barren woman named Elizabeth.
Elizabeth and her husband were not people to sneeze at. They were both descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses and a great leader of Israel in his own right. Zechariah was a priest, a highly esteemed position among their people which came with a stable, life-long income. Though born into privilege, Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t just coast on their good fortune, they lived with integrity. They were “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (1:5). Everything sounds great for Elizabeth and Zechariah until Luke begins a sentence with the word but.
“But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v 7)
Three bald clauses equal one devastating reality that shredded the couple’s contentment. Elizabeth was barren. So they had no children. And their happiness was incomplete.
Who can translate “well along in years” to an age? Was Elizabeth 35, the maternal age at which, today, we consider pregnancies high risk? Was she 45 and skirting close menopause? And Zechariah, who may have been a decade or more older than his wife, was he concerned about decreasing virility? Our curiosity about numbers and conditions doesn’t really matter. Luke simply indicates that the couple was old enough to know that their chances of conceiving were as miniscule as a mustard seed.
It is a beautiful and profound privilege to be life-bearers. But then, how utterly painful to have the womb and the cycle and the spouse – and the yearning – only to have your body wash away all that potential life each month. For years, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, and Elizabeth embodied, this tension. Like discordant notes buzzing, knowing they needed only a slight tweak to create a beautiful harmony, Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted and waited.
But here is the thing about this couple, which to me seems both wild and wonderful: despite all the years of riding the reproductive seesaw, despite the pain, disappointment and exhaustion they must have felt, Elizabeth and Zechariah kept asking God for a child. This is hope, and in my opinion a rather robust version of it – despite overwhelmingly improbable odds, they looked to God and continued believing that life could come to them.
Where do people get such inner resources? Surely Elizabeth’s faith was a deep well, drained by disappointments, but always having enough water to scoop up and drink. Maybe she was able to temporarily quench her soul-thirst for a baby by pondering the story of her ancestor Sarah, another barren women who, in her old age, became both the mother of Isaac and the mother of nations (Genesis 17:16).
If this hope for life was about righteousness then Sarah, who deceived kings and doubted God, should have remained childless and Elizabeth, who stood tall and blameless before God, should have had a pack of little priests following after her by the time Luke writes. Reading the story closely, I see no indications that Elizabeth felt entitled to a baby because of her lineage, her advantageous marriage or her blameless life. She didn’t do any bargaining with God or rage at him in her long disappointment. The way Luke tells the story, Elizabeth simply waits, quietly buzzing with hope, believing life can begin in her.
This kind of hope is marvelous to me, and by that I mean, I marvel. I read about Elizabeth and admire her but I struggle to identify with her deep yearning for a baby. If you know me, you know that I love children, but I seem to be missing the female gene that makes you want to get pregnant and birth a child. If I were like Elizabeth and faced the same challenges, would I be strong enough or faithful enough to live like Elizabeth, to embody and abide with such an improbable hope?
As a hospital chaplain, I once worked in antepartum, the unit that is home for women with high-risk pregnancies. Most of our patients spent weeks, if not months, nesting on their plastic-covered hospital mattresses, slowly transforming the bland walls of their rooms into bright collages of family photos, crayon drawings from expectant cousins, amateur but heartfelt poetry and handwritten prayers. It seemed that our patients all followed an unspoken ritual passed down from the mothers who had come before them – if they surrounded themselves with a still-life of smiling faces, loving words and colorful doodles, they would somehow knit their wombs into plush receiving blankets and their babies would arrive safely. The place was equal parts wishes and fear, friendly yet hushed, scented with Elmer’s glue and tears.
That’s where I met Kelly. She and I were the same age but she married young. For the past eleven years Kelly and her husband had been trying to have a baby. By the time I met her, she was in the very early days of her ninth pregnancy. She’d had something like five miscarriages and three stillbirths. They’d done every fertility test, procedure and drug available. IVF failed. Donor eggs failed. Though there were no diagnosable issues, Kelly was told her womb was a hostile environment. The most recent squeeze of fate? The couple who contracted to be their surrogates accidentally got pregnant with their fifth child a month before the scheduled implantation.
For over an hour Kelly told me about the breathless babies she got to hold, only to carry to the cemetery. She chronicled her grief by making a full chapter of each miscarriage and lost opportunity. It was a stunning story, so painful that it almost felt exaggerated, like a made-for-TV movie that is “based on a true story” but you know the producers made everything more dramatic than it really was. But Kelly’s story was real.
I expected a woman who knew such loss to be woeful. I looked for the desperation that haunts the women in antepartum. I listened for secret pains to leak out in common phrases like I wish and my fault. No matter how well I listened or how closely I looked, Kelly’s story was bound with smooth skin, dry eyes and frank talk. I’d been a chaplain and pastor long enough to identify denial. Kelly sat before me somehow very healthy. Her serenity was palpable; it was so clear and bright that I had trouble maintaining eye contact (a difficulty I seldom have). Kelly’s story sent me inward; I had a hundred questions and a jumble of feelings. At the end of my visit, I asked Kelly the one question that burned in me the entire hour:
“What is it in you that keeps you from giving up?”
Without pausing, she said simply, “I’ve always known that God created me to be a mother.”
People might argue with Kelly’s words but the lesson here is not in our opinions, but in Kelly’s spirit. What I initially identified as serenity, I suddenly knew as a living, pulsing, Spirit-breathed hope. A hope like Elizabeth’s. Hope that said a baby may be improbable, but with God it is possible. Hope that stood tall through the second-guessing and disapproval of friends and neighbors, that endured big things like disappointment and grief, and that sneezed at little things like advancing years and hostile wombs. For both of these barren women, the hope for life didn’t hinge on personal qualifications, track records or wishful thinking; their hope rested solely on God, the Creator of all life.
So I come back to one of my original questions, why did Luke begin his orderly account of Jesus’ life with the story of a barren woman? Barrenness, this no life within the place of potential life, is the soil of hope. The absence of life, the yearning for life, like a womb or a fallow field – they whisper and shout, I was made for more than this; I was made for life!
It doesn’t take a long look around to know there has to be more than this. Just as Elizabeth and Kelly and millions of other barren women have cried out for life to begin in them, our souls cry out for life to come and set the empty caverns of our hearts pumping. We were made for life, for abundant life, but this world is a hostile womb.
Elizabeth is just one person in the midst of a centuries-long story; people might assume that her part is insignificant. Well, take notice, world! Elizabeth’s barrenness shows us just how wide and long and high and deep was our need for God to come and fill us with new life, a hope which Jesus would fulfill.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to [Zechariah]…and said…“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John…And he will go on before the Lord…to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
She who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.