A couple of holy people they are, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke’s Gospel tells us, “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Since hundreds of regulations in addition to the Ten Commandments governed righteous living, that is a remarkable character reference. Zechariah and Elizabeth are “righteous” and live “blamelessly.” Both are descended from priestly lines. Describing a woman’s ancestry is unusual in the Bible. Even in the case of Jesus, we are told only Joseph’s heritage—“of the house and lineage of David.” We aren’t told Whether Mary descended from any noted line. Priestly heritage and faithfulness have not protected Elizabeth and Zechariah from the sorrow of childlessness, however. When Elizabeth finally becomes pregnant, she states, “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” (Luke 1:25). She has “endured” disgrace because of her barrenness. When Elizabeth married Zechariah, she probably prepared a layette for their first child as any woman would. Can you picture her making tiny clothes and accumulating them?
But as the years pass and no children are born, Elizabeth stops preparing for motherhood. She puts the clothes away or perhaps gives them to a younger relative. She resigns herself to the pity, scorn, and speculation of those who wonder what she and Zechariah have done to deserve this sad fate. She endures disgrace.
Then something wondrous happens: Late in life, Elizabeth conceives. The one person who could have prepared her for the surprise is Zechariah, but as we know from the first week’s writings, he has been stricken speechless because he questioned an angel messenger. Since women were not educated at that time, even if he had written her a note, she could not have read it. The undoubtedly surprised Elizabeth secludes herself, probably waiting until she can be sure that she is indeed pregnant. After all, she might not be. She could be entering menopause or have some illness. At other times over the years, she may have thought she was pregnant; she will not go public until she knows the pregnancy is certain. In those days no home pregnancy tests could conﬁrm or dash her hopes. She will be sure only at quickening when she feels the child move within her. Since this is Elizabeth’s first pregnancy, she may not be sure that those first mild flutterings are indeed a baby’s movement. Perhaps she has been mistaken about that before too. So she remains in seclusion, telling no one but probably hugging herself with joy as she becomes more certain that her disgrace is about to end.
Then the angel tells someone else about Elizabeth’s child—Mary. Mary travels to the hill country of Judea to visit her aging cousin, who is in the sixth month of pregnancy. When Mary enters and speaks, Elizabeth’s child does not merely move; the Bible says that the baby “leaps” in his mother’s womb. There can be no mistaking the source of the sensation now, even for the uninitiated Elizabeth.
Years ago I heard a television report about a survey of women that asked them to name the happiest day of their life. Before the announcer could continue, I guessed out loud, “The day their first child was born.” And that was the most common answer. So Elizabeth has a reason for joy. But her joy is not only because of her own pregnancy. Suddenly, When Mary enters her home, Elizabeth knows that Mary is also pregnant and that she will one day call Mary’s child “my Lord.”
Though the fact is seldom noted, it seems Elizabeth is the first person to realize on her own that Mary is pregnant and the first to proclaim from her own insight that Christ is about to enter the world. The others learn the news by way of an angel’s visit or a dream. But Elizabeth knows from an inward Witness, and she boldly announces that Mary’s child will be the Messiah. As far as I can tell from the stories in the Gospels, she is also the first person to conﬁrm publicly What the angel told Mary. Imagine what a relief it must have been to Mary to have Elizabeth as an encourager. Scripture also singles out Elizabeth in describing her as “filled with the Holy Spirit,” the only woman so characterized. The angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will “come upon her,” but even Mary is not described as “filled with” the Holy Spirit. That description is reserved for Elizabeth. All of us Who have “finally” received a great blessing or gift can celebrate Elizabeth and celebrate With her.
CHOSEN FOR RELATIONSHIP
On the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of joy, we acknowledge the excitement of the promise fulfilled. Elizabeth’s story illustrates this theme beautifully. God tells Zechariah through an angel’s visit that he and his wife will know the joy of having a child, but Elizabeth comes to that knowledge without an angel or a dream or any special sign to help her believe. She knows the incredible joy of having her disgrace wiped away, but she also experiences the added joy of recognizing that God is about to do something even more wonderful, and not just for her and Zechariah personally but for the whole world. She realizes that the Messiah is about to be born.
Elizabeth asks Mary, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Her question reflects the wonder of realizing that God comes to us individually. And that reality is remarkable. God could herd us all together like flocks of sheep and redeem us in groups. God could zap whole congregations and speed up the process of saving the world. But God wants a relationship with each of us and so chooses to come to us one by one. The relationships described in the stories about Tamar and Rahab are business arrangements in which people strike a deal and trust one another only minimally. In Ruth’s story, we witness a relationship in the course of ordinary human interactions when a benevolent relative, Boaz, notices Ruth. But in Elizabeth’s story, we see the relationship of a different order.
Elizabeth is overwhelmed when she realizes that the mother of the Messiah has come to her personally. A righteous and blameless person, she finds that the fact of being sought by God difficult to grasp and impossible to explain. We ordinary folks who intimately know ourselves to be less than righteous and less than blameless find it even more difficult to understand that God seeks us out and wants a relationship with us! Because relationships are built one person at a time, God invests time and energy in each one of us, knowing each one of us is unique and infinitely valuable.
In Elizabeth, we can observe a truth about God’s ways with us. Elizabeth and Zechariah are living their accustomed lives in a little hill town, being quietly faithful to God. She is being a wife, and he is serving in the temple as priestly families did in those times. When it comes to his turn, in the usual course of events. On that day when the angel comes to him in the temple, Zechariah has been selected by lot to enter the sanctuary and light the incense. He has not been selected because of any personal achievement; it is simply his turn. Elizabeth is not in the public eye; she is not a prominent person. Yet even though she does not leave her home, God comes to her. “Why has this happened to me?” she asks Mary. Why, indeed? Why would God choose an obscure woman like Elizabeth to first publicly proclaim the truth about Jesus’ nature? Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary offers a clue.
We are not told what Mary is thinking or why she comes to visit Elizabeth. Perhaps Mary comes simply to help her cousin. Once Mary knows that Elizabeth is pregnant, she probably realizes that she would appreciate company. I like to think a special relationship between the two women makes Mary feel she could and should go to Elizabeth. Perhaps Elizabeth, the childless one, has been like a special aunt to Mary all her life. Perhaps Mary has made this trip to the hill country of Judea many times. Perhaps she has gone there as eagerly and as often as I went to my grandma and grandpa’s on weekends when I was a child. Maybe it was the priest Zechariah and his godly wife, Elizabeth, who taught Mary about the promised Messiah. Maybe she holds cherished memories of being in their home. For whatever reason, when Mary finds herself pregnant, she goes to Elizabeth. And she stays with her for three months. Mary’s parents are never mentioned, and her long visit with Elizabeth makes me believe there was a special closeness between these two. Mary’s mother may not have been living. Though the Bible does not explicitly say so, I like to think that Mary is with Elizabeth until John was born. Elizabeth is in her sixth month of pregnancy when Mary comes, and Mary stays three months. I can’t imagine that she’d leave when Elizabeth is nine months pregnant, without waiting to see that Elizabeth and the baby are well. No, I think Mary is there when John the Baptist is born. And she stays for good reason.
We hear a clue to the reason in Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary. Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. . . . And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:42, 45). Mary is young, unmarried, and pregnant, and her cousin calls her “blessed.” Three times, in fact, Elizabeth uses that word. Not only that, Elizabeth knows and acknowledges that something rare and incredible is going on through this young woman. We know that Mary was frightened by her encounter with the angel; perhaps the content of the angel’s message has become even more frightening to Mary in her solitude once the angel left. Perhaps she needs reassurance and someone to talk to. In any case, she comes to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth receives her, not with suspicions and censure but with affirmation. I imagine them having long talks about how amazing God is. Elizabeth is great with child and getting on in years, so she probably is not physically active. I’m sure the two have lots of time to talk.
I can almost hear Elizabeth reassuring the younger woman, helping her to accept the miracle that is happening. After all, Elizabeth is experiencing something almost like a miracle herself, after her years of childlessness. I believe Mary stays because she needs Elizabeth; she needs to hear Elizabeth’s blessing and feel Elizabeth’s affirmation of her. That blessing and affirmation strengthen Mary to face what lies ahead. Just as we all need someone in difficult times, Mary needs someone to help her hang on to what God has promised. She is going into uncharted territory, and her only reassurance is the memory of an angel’s Visit months earlier. But Elizabeth affirms that Mary is “blessed.”
It is difficult to overstate the power of blessing one another and naming one another as blessed by God. The Bible offers us multiple stories of sons who seek their fathers’ blessings. The well—known story of Jacob and Esau implies this blessing is worth lying and scheming for; the loss of it is enough to make Esau want to kill his brother. A father’s blessing of the eldest son was a powerful act. In our less structured, modern interactions, parents’ words have great power in the lives of their children, even though parents may not impart a formal blessing. Often parents do not realize the influence they have. When parents say, “Johnny is our creative one” or, “Susie is a natural athlete,” they may not realize that they are forming Johnny for a career in art or that Susie will expend great energy in developing her tennis stroke, all because they overhear their parents. The words we speak have power, and when we speak a blessing, we act powerfully.
My favorite benediction from Hebrew scripture evokes a beautiful image of the power in a blessing. The blessing comes from the Book of Numbers (6:24-26):
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
God says further to Moses, “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Num. 6:27). When we bless another in the name of God, when we “put [God’s] name on” someone, we ask God to turn toward them. We bid the light that emanates from God’s face to shine upon them. We bring the power of God’s light into their circumstances. This benediction is echoed in the prayer of Psalm 4:6: “Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!”
In the South, we have informally incorporated the act of blessing one another into our daily lives. It shows up often in our speech. My grandmother used to say when she held any of her grandchildren on her knee: “Bless your heart, my darling. Bless your heart. I’m just so proud [glad] to see you.” My grandma was such that person for me. To this day I remember the love and delight in her face and in her voice as she greeted me. I credit the love and affirmation I received from my grandma with nurturing in me. She loved me and blessed me with her affirming words, and that love still follows me and draws me toward the fullness of life that God offers. Even before I had a conscious desire to know God, the love my grandma poured into my life prepared me to understand and respond to God’s love when it was identified for me.
I hope someone in your life has conferred similar blessing upon you, because those positive words do follow us. Our words have the power to shape others’ perceptions of themselves in life-changing ways. We can strengthen them to follow God, and in the process, experience God’s presence ourselves. To bless one another is to affirm each individual’s loveliness to God. But words also have power for the opposite effect. They can limit and control. Consider the power of negative words.
Years ago a friend told me his family members repeatedly said to him, “You’ll never amount to anything.” I cannot understand why any family would continually say such a thing, but the people in his family did. Haunted by those negative words, he became determined to prove them wrong. “I’ll show them” became the watchword of his life. In spite of great odds, he found a way to go to college. Then he got a good job. He put his energy into achieving and earning, determined to “show them.” In middle age, he found himself captive by work and the desire to win others’ praise. He was successful, but then the unthinkable happened: He lost his job. Overnight, the life he had worked so hard to build, crumbled; he was in crisis. Only his success had made him someone. Without the job that had become his outward proof of worth, he was adrift. As months passed without his finding another job, he plunged into despair. His family’s words had the power of a curse, and he felt himself to be nothing. At this critical time, someone in his church invited him to join a group of men who met weekly to support one another in their Christian journey. Slowly, through the power of their friendship and their prayers, he realized that he had been controlled by a lie. His friends helped him to see that he was much more than what he earned, much more than his job. But he could not free himself of the lie about success until he traced his obsession back to its origins and understood what had been driving him. With the help of the men who supported him, my friend realized that God did not name him a failure but with a new name: “Beloved and blessed—just as you are.” To bless someone by naming that person in relation to God and what God is doing in the world can make a tremendous difference!
Most of us do not take time to uncover negative messages from the past that limit us. Most of us do not have dramatic insights such as my friend had. But we all remember both positive and negative words. Maybe you had a label in your family-“the studious one,” “the athletic one,” “the funny one,” “the chubby one,” “the clumsy one”-that still shapes or limits how you think about yourself or that causes you pain or self-doubt. Labels can haunt us. Mary surely had moments when she wondered if the townspeople would say terrible things about her and Joseph and even the child, once he was born. After all, by law Joseph should put her away for adultery since she was pregnant, unless the baby was his, which would make both of them subject to censure. How was she going to make it through the months of her pregnancy, with no one knowing or understanding what was happening? I can imagine her repeating to herself many times Elizabeth’s words, “Blessed are you among women.” Words, just words. But I think Mary needed those “just words.”
Elizabeth, staying in her quiet town, waiting for her baby to be born, realizes that the great God of the universe has touched her life and is coming to all the world. It seems too incredible to be true. But she proclaims to Mary and to us that it is true. “Oh well,” we say, “maybe God caused Elizabeth to say what she did as a special gift for Mary. She was Jesus’ mother, after all.” But one lesson I draw from Elizabeth’s wondering question is that God does indeed come to ordinary people. God is active on both sides of the equation: God comes to us in those who bless us, and God comes to others through us when we bless them.
While messages from God came through and to particular women and men, the Bible tells us that no prophecy is “of any private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20, KJV). That is, the truths of the Bible’s words go beyond these few people in specific places. The truths throughout the Bible belong to each of us. It’s truths about God’s nature and God’s ways of dealing with people in these stories speak to and can guide all of us. That is the special sense in which every verse in the Bible is true for each of us. Even though Mary and Elizabeth had specific roles to play in a particular place and time, they are a part of the promise made centuries earlier to Abraham: “By your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing” (Gen. 22:18). Similarly, even though Jesus was born in a specific time and place, his coming is also personal and timeless, for each of us.
Elizabeth’s experience reminds us that God does come to humans like us. Through prophets and priests and friends and relatives, God claims us and tells us that we are loved and worth loving. But we have short memories. We all forget those truths, and so we are given the privilege of reminding one another over and over. The grieving person needs someone to say, “You are not alone. I care, and God cries with you and is holding you close.” The child struggling in school needs someone to say, “You are a wonderful person. You are a gift from God, and I am so glad you’re here.” The teenager wracked with self—doubt needs someone to say, “You have wonderful gifts to share with the world, and I am proud of you.” The tired worker needs someone to say, “You do a good job, and I appreciate your effort.” In as many ways as there are people, we need to say to one another from the heart, “Blessed are you. God comes into the world through you.” Such words can be God’s healing touch for whatever disgrace someone may have endured, for whatever censure someone may have received for not living up to others’ expectations.
We find words of blessing throughout the Bible. When Jesus is baptized, God speaks from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). That statement echoes words recorded in Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, / with whom my soul is well pleased’ ” (Isa. 42:1). In the words chosen, beloved, well pleased we witness God blessing Jesus as Elizabeth did Mary. We are made in God’s image, and so there is power in our words as well, the power to bless one another and even to bless God. Many of the psalms offer us patterns for a blessing. Psalm 103 makes it a refrain:
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives . . . ,
who heals . . . ,
who redeems. . . .
In many prayers, we say, “We bless your holy name, O God,” without considering why we do it. I believe we can learn a deep truth here about why blessing one another through our words is so important. We think of God as complete, needing nothing from us. But what if God needs our “blessing”? What if God needs our acknowledgment of the holiness and worth of our Creator, just as we hunger to be completely known and completely loved? What if, at the center of the universe, the fount of all creation, all life, is the yearning to be known, loved, affirmed, embraced—the yearning to be chosen and claimed in a loving relationship? What if that desire for affirmation and acceptance lies at the center of all that is? Does God need to be blessed by us? Certainly, God does not need us in the same sense that humans need food, shelter, breath. But maybe somehow, at the deepest level of reality, God needs us. Why did God create humanity? In order to be in relationship with us.
Considering the need to be known and blessed in the relationship may bring us closer to the heart of the Advent message. In Christ God comes to each of us, to offer each of us the only relationship that can truly satisfy, and through Christ, we find a relationship with God, who yearns from the beginning of time to be loved by us, to be close to us. Why should God come to us, ordinary as we are, and claim us as chosen? Scripture gives us the answer repeatedly: because God who created us also steadily loves us and delights in us (see Gen. 1:31; PS. 18:19; Isa. 42:1; 62:4; John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:9). Tamar and Rahab show us partnership, a relationship built on what people can do for one another. Ruth shows us the relationship of a benevolent relative who recognizes our need when we show up. God uses such relationships, but God wants more than those alliances. But Elizabeth’s words remind us that God’s love is not a benign, detached love waiting for us to take the first step. God is love, and God is active love that seeks us out. Why has this happened to me?” Elizabeth wonders. God’s active love is the answer, and it is the reason for our joy during Advent.