Foremost, the Greek word we derive our current meaning of seclusion is defined as “hidden” or “to hide.” And hidden or to hide can be an either/and in terms of a literal or figurative interpretation (W. Mundle, Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2). We find examples of its usage in Genesis 3: 8 where Adam and Eve are hidden from God as God walks throughout the garden calling out for them. We see another example of hidden found in the dialogue of Eli and Samuel within Samuel’s call narrative. In the New Testament, the same use of hidden is found in the context of faith (Hebrews 11:23)—the example of Moses being hidden three months after his birth. Interestingly enough, this had nothing to do with being fearful of Pharaoh’s decree.
What we can take from this, linguistically as well as biblically, is that seclusion isn’t the same as what we might think of today as isolation. In fact, being in seclusion seems to be a time of preparedness or anticipation for a sign of God’s promise towards the beneficiary. And, in most cases, that includes the participation of others, or at least, dialogue with God. So, what we read in Luke about Elizabeth (literally and figuratively) provides us with a timeline that John is to be the forerunner of Jesus as well as it speaks to the cultural reality of Jewish womanhood and, in particular, to Elizabeth’s plight:
Barrenness was a triple tragedy for a Jewish woman. It shriveled the hopes of her husband for posterity, sparked taunts from other women when she appeared at the village well, and signified her sin. To be barren was to be out of favor with God and man. To be pregnant was to be blessed....Zechariah’s term ended with the next Sabbath. He headed home, Elizabeth subsequently conceived, and for the five months she remained in confinement. She waited until it was perfectly obvious that she was going to have a baby before she ventured forth to the village well, the social center of the Near East. She had had enough of the taunts of her fellow townswomen (Connick, Jesus the Man, the Mission, and the Message, 1974, p. 111).
Luke goes on to write that within the sixth month (after the annunciation) Mary visits Elizabeth “in haste” (Luke 1: 39) and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit following the sign of John leaping in her womb (verse 41). Such a sign from God affirms God’s promise to Elizabeth as well as Mary; thus, it may not be a surprise that Mary sings a song of praise (the Magnificat) following such an event.
In addition to what Connick stated about Elizabeth’s pregnancy (see above), I would suggest that she’s in a period of waiting to process and see if this blessing will be fulfilled—meaning that I think of Elizabeth as a very real person within this story, and I think about her as taking on very human characteristics: wondering what others will think about her if she doesn’t come to full term; feeling bad that she would doubt God in the first place; wondering if what she experienced was real or not, even though many thought her husband had seen a vision because of his muteness and possibly deafness in the temple; and should she really wait five months, or any months for that matter, before entering numerous social circles…is this testing God?
Mary’s visit seems to quell any or all of those thoughts and in fully believing (and, yes, a sign is included), Elizabeth’s doubt* transforms into a galvanized faith not only for Elizabeth’s story but also for the world.
*Elizabeth’s doubt is arguable. I’m making this assumption based on my Ignatian reading of this passage. My reasoning for putting doubt into her narrative is because of verse 25: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” This could be a pronouncement of the blessing she received, much like we find in other narratives of important people throughout the Bible, or could it be that she’s trying to convince herself of such a blessing as well? The pronouncement becomes some sort of mantra—repeating over and over in her head to help keep doubt at bay.
The Pilgrim's Way
I've found that over the years there's nothing better than to have a venue to share your thoughts and feelings about life-all of its ups and downs-the vicissitudes of a life full of love, loss, grief, and, ultimately, joy. It's my hope that through the exchange of stories and experiences, we, as human beings, will realize how connected to one another we truly are...to see the value in one another is the pilgrim's way.