When the angel Gabriel told Mary she was pregnant, she also learned that her older cousin Elizabeth was expecting a child. Now, Mary knew that Elizabeth had longed to have a child with her husband Zachariah the priest, and she knew that Elizabeth was past childbearing age. Clearly, this was a miracle! And so, Luke tells us, Mary went with haste to the town of Ein Karem, in the hill country of Judea, to make sense of what had happened and to find someone who would believe her when she explained what the angel had said.
Ein Karem was eighty miles from Mary’s home in Nazareth. This journey by foot would have taken perhaps nine days. Mary would not have traveled alone but would have made the journey with others who were on their way to Jerusalem. It is likely that Mary explained to her parents that she had learned of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and had volunteered to go and help her during the pregnancy. How else would she explain to her parents that she wanted to travel so far from home to see Elizabeth? Further, Mary stayed with Elizabeth until the end of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which might have indicate that Mary had come to help Elizabeth until the baby was born.
The fact that Mary was willing to travel nine days across three mountain ranges to see Elizabeth speaks volumes about how she was feeling. She longed for someone who might believe here and who could help her make sense of what was happening.
If Elizabeth and Zechariah were like many couples who have struggled with infertility, it is likely that they had conceived and miscarried on several occasions. The chances of a miscarriage in a pregnancy at their age was high. This may explain why Elizabeth went into seclusion for the first five months of her pregnancy. Unwilling to subject herself to the pain of another public miscarriage, she decided to wait to celebrate her pregnancy until she had passed the second trimester (see Luke 1:24). It seems to have been Mary’s visit that drew Elizabeth out of her seclusion. Mary needed Elizabeth, but perhaps Elizabeth also needed Mary.
When Mary arrived in Ein Karem she was, at the most, just a few weeks pregnant, yet already the child forming in her womb had an identity known to Elizabeth. Elizabeth recognized that the child developing in Mary’s womb was none other than “my Lord.” Elizabeth was six months pregnant, and the child in her womb responded to the sound of Mary’s voice-and by implication to the child in Mary’s womb-by kicking. Here, in utero, John the Baptist bore witness to the identity of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
It is interesting to note that the first person in all the Gospels to call Jesus “Lord” was Elizabeth, and she proclaimed it even before Jesus was born. This passage sets the stage for the rest of Luke’s Gospel, which is the story of the birth, life, teachings, ministry, death and resurrection of the Lord.