I find Year B, the year of Mark, the toughest Advent year for preaching. And yet-- full disclosure-- I have yet to grapple with all the gospel lections offered by the RCL.
At any rate, the prospect of delving into the character of Elizabeth and her story, and how it might speak to the Advent project, was just too tempting. So I did it.
What can we say about Elizabeth?
We can say that she was a woman with a pedigree, a member of a particular kind of religious aristocracy—a descendant of Aaron, the very first of all the priests of Israel. And the priests were those who were literally closest to God—they served in the Temple, for ancient Jews, God’s home on earth. Priests were the only ones who could venture into that holiest of holy places. Of course, only men could be priests. And so Elizabeth was not only descended from priests; she was also married to one, Zechariah. Elizabeth was a priestly woman.
We can also say that both Elizabeth and her husband lived up to the expectations of that pedigree. Luke says, “Both of them were righteous before God…,” blameless. Elizabeth was a righteous woman.
And we can say that Elizabeth was “middle-aged”—at least, that’s how we would describe her today. In her day, an era when life expectancy at birth was not even thirty years, she was probably close to fifty. In her day, Elizabeth was an old woman.
And we can say this: Elizabeth did not expect to have a child. Luke calls her “barren,” a dreadful word conjuring up desert wastelands which was applied to women who had failed to fulfill what was, in that era, considered a woman’s primary duty: to have a child. Specifically, to have a male child, so that her husband’s lineage might continue. Of course, the word betrays an understanding of reproduction that is intent on placing blame, always on the woman. Something so problematic it would take ten sermons to begin to unpack. For now, we will just have to say, Elizabeth was a “barren” woman. We will use quotation marks to stand in for all we cannot say about this label in this sermon.
A priestly woman, but an old woman. A righteous woman, but a barren woman. These are the things Luke tells us about Elizabeth. He would have weighed these attributes, finding in them counterbalances to one another, in an effort to answer the questions: Should we care about Elizabeth? Is she worth our notice? And, in particular, why read her story on this first Sunday in Advent?
My answers to these questions are: Yes, we should care about this woman who teeters in the balance of these weighty adjectives. Yes, she is a woman who is worth our notice. And we read about her because she is a part of an important family history, the history of Jesus of Nazareth. As we prepare this Advent to celebrate his birth and to anticipate his return, I think it’s a worthwhile project to acquaint ourselves with this particular one of his forbears. Just as my family history doesn’t begin with me, and your family history doesn’t begin with you, Jesus’ family history begins long before his birth, or even his conception. In truth, it begins long before this priestly/ old/ righteous/ barren woman comes along. But since the gospel begins with her, we’ll start there.
We no sooner meet Elizabeth, and receive Luke’s fourfold assessment of her, than everything in her world is turned upside down by the announcement of an angel. Gabriel appears, not to Elizabeth, but to her husband, while he is at work, no less. Gabriel, an archangel whose name means “God is my strength,” appears in the sacred writings of Christians, and Jews, and Muslims. We Christians know him as the great announcer—he appears, in Luke’s gospel, first to Zechariah, and then to Mary, in both cases forecasting very unexpected arrivals.
Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife—his priestly and old and righteous and barren wife—will have a child, a son, and he goes on to describe that son’s remarkable life at some length. The son, whose name will be John, will be great in the eyes of God, and a very particular vessel for the work of the Holy Spirit. Our Monday 5 PM Bible Study has just finished reading Luke’s other book, the Acts of the Apostles, and everyone in that group can tell you this: the Holy Spirit is arguably the main character in Luke’s writing. Everything important that happens does so by the power and activity of the Spirit. To say that John will be such a vessel is an amazing statement, one that ought to give Zechariah pause, make him fall to his undoubtedly arthritic knees in gratitude and humility and awe and joy.
That’s not really how this scene unfolds, though. Evidently this announcement is so dubious that the priest, rather than being overwhelmed by the way in which God is smiling on his family, says the equivalent of “No way.” Or, perhaps, “Prove it.” Everything except, “Yeah, and I have a bridge in Berea I want to sell you.”
Gabriel is not amused, and rather than put up with such a disbelieving retort, he tells Zechariah he can just stay in his room and think about what he’s said, and no dinner for him tonight. Or, rather, the biblical version of this: no talking for you, Zechariah, until that baby is born. Which is no sooner than nine months from now. The words out of your mouth doubted the Holy Spirit. Fine. Therefore, your voice is silenced. For now.
After those days, Luke tells us, Elizabeth did in fact conceive—Elizabeth, whose name in Hebrew is Elisheva, which means “My God has sworn.” Indeed. Elizabeth’s God, the God, evidently, of the priestly and the old and the righteous and the barren, has sworn. And so it comes to pass. By which I mean, God does it. God makes it happen. And then, as soon as we have met Elizabeth, she disappears from the narrative for a time—there is another announcement, and another pregnancy for Gabriel and the Holy Spirit to orchestrate. It’s time for Elizabeth to be alone for a while.
I’m interested in sharing Elizabeth’s story with you for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s a story the lectionary doesn’t really give us a chance to experience and enjoy. For another, it ties in with one of the great overarching themes of Advent, the theme of hope.
We are given only the tiniest window into Elizabeth’s heart, and her few words speak volumes. At the end of our passage, five months pregnant, she says, “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.” Disgrace is a powerful word, and a word that seems to signal an absence of all hope. To be a disgrace is to be in a state opposite to a state of grace, that free and unlimited gift of love. For Elizabeth, at the beginning of her story here, there is no free gift of love. But at the end of the story, she can say that God has taken away that disgrace, and, instead, looked upon her with favor. The road from disgrace to favor is a road whose traveler knows intimately what it is like to be without hope, and to then have that hope restored.
The loss of hope can creep up on us, silent as a little cat, so stealthy we do not even know it has curled up under our feet. We simply awaken one day and realize that we no longer look at life as having possibility, the promise of joy. The absence of hope leaves room only for despair. If hope is the “thing with feathers,” despair is the sure and certain knowledge that we are grounded, and will never rise again. Despair is the understanding that there is no grace for us, not now, and not ever. Despair is what Elizabeth experienced prior to the events of this story.
When we leave her, Elizabeth is five months pregnant, secluded, and, for those of us looking for the hope to be found in Advent, she is a model we might consider. In order to be open to the real experience of hope, we have to remember what it is to have none. When have you found that little cat that is despair curled up in your heart? Maybe, like Elizabeth, it had to do with the expectations you couldn’t quite fulfill, whether they were your own, or your family’s, or society’s. Maybe your experience of losing hope had to do with what felt like an unending and terrifying job search, or perhaps having a job you dreaded day after day, when walking into your workplace felt like sinking in quicksand. Maybe your experience of losing hope has to do, not with your personal situation, but with something you see around you… the interminable and hateful deadlock we witness day by day in our government, the way people on both sides of any given debate shout past one another, never really hearing one another. Elizabeth is a model to consider because she has truly lived in the pain of her despair, and now she is living in the pregnant expectation of hope’s restoration.
In Advent we are asked to become willing to gestate hope in ourselves. One writer says,
In Advent we are a people, pregnant. Pregnant and waiting. We long for the God/Man to be born, and waiting is hard… [But] waiting, because it will always be with us, can be made a work of art, and the season of Advent invites us to underscore and understand that… state of being, waiting. Our… world wants to blast away waiting from our lives. Instant gratification has become our constitutional right, and delay an aberration. We equate waiting with wasting… waiting is unpractical time, good for nothing, but mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming. As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation. Not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation… Waiting could use a new look. The discipline of delayed gratification—not celebrating Christmas until the twenty-fourth of December—and the hope-filled rituals of our Advent preparations will give value to the waiting periods in our lives.[i]
We find Elizabeth a disgrace, as she describes herself. And we leave her filled with grace, and hope, and waiting for what God will unfold next in her life, and her house is very, very quiet.
What if we were to expect God to break into our lives over these next four weeks just as radically as God broke into Elizabeth’s life? For most of us, the next four weeks will be busy. They will be filled with preparations for the celebrations of Christmas at home and school and work and church. But for every one of us, these weeks are an opportunity we are offered each year, an opportunity to find a tiny oasis of quiet even in the midst of the busyness, to lean into our own experience of hopelessness and listen for that tiny thing with feathers. We are all Elizabeth; our God has sworn that we will not be left in our despair. We are all Elizabeth; still waiting, but knowing that we can cling to God’s promise even as the days grow darker. We are all Elizabeth; capable of gestating a hope that God will make it happen, in ways we can’t even yet imagine. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (New York/ Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1986), 61-62.