A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C, drawing on the backstory to Elizabeth and Mary’s meeting in Luke 1
We don’t know very much about Elizabeth, mother of the baptizing prophet and cousin to the mother of God, but I think that the evidence points to her as a generous and joyful woman.
Her name is derived from one that might mean, “God is my oath,” or “God is my satisfaction, my abundance.” Perhaps it is designed to mean both: “God is the promise, and God its fulfillment.”
Despite the promise of her name, life had not always been kind to Elizabeth. She lived blamelessly, according to Luke, and came from a good, strong line – she was descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses; Aaron, whose own wife was named Elisheva, another form of Elizabeth. Still, this Elizabeth’s plans for her home and family were unfulfilled, and she found herself often ashamed and awkward in community gatherings, unable to account for her loneliness and empty hands.
Then, her husband had suffered some kind of an episode at work that had left him speechless, and with symptoms suspicious of a delusional illness, and she must have been worried sick.
The people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.
And that’s the exact and inconvenient point in time when, after all of those years of trying and giving up, her sickness resolved itself into morning sickness, and Elizabeth found herself pregnant, with an aging and at-risk body, and a silent and dubiously sane husband.
Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
And so another woman might have responded a little differently when her young cousin, Mary, dropped by for an extended visit, bringing the news that, by the way, she was also pregnant, although not yet married, in a time and a place where that did matter, and that she was on the run from the same angel whom Elizabeth’s husband claimed to know.
If I were Elizabeth, for example, I might think, “Here we go again. Just like Zechariah, another one gone mad. Angel? Angel dust, more like it.”
Or, in Elizabeth’s place, I might wonder, “Why does she get all the glory? The Bible explicitly says that I have led a blameless life. I have suffered, I have served my time, my husband was just in the Holy of Holies, for heaven’s sake – and here she is, my upstart cousin, barely out of the playground, playing at becoming the Mother of God, creating gossip and carrying on, not to mention stealing my thunder, and my husband’s angel. What about us? What about me?” she might have been tempted to say.
But Elizabeth was a better woman than I am.
Elizabeth embraced Mary warmly, without judgement, without reservation, and with every encouragement, imputing joy even to the infant in her womb; reading all possible joy and satisfaction into any possible interpretation of their meeting.
And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.
“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” concluded Elizabeth, named for God’s promise, and God’s faithfulness in its fulfillment.
What would the world be if we all acted as Elizabeth? How would it be if we were to greet everyone as Mary, the God-bearer, since we know that everyone who passes before us bears the image of God? (#ExpectGod!)
What if, as a nation, in all humility we were to greet those seeking sanctuary here as Elizabeth, asking, “And who are we, that you choose us to confide in?” What if we were to embrace those wandering in the wilderness, “And blessed are you! We are so glad that you made it, that you are alive! You are safe here, now.”
Elizabeth, I think, is who we aspire to be, when our fears, our egos, and our own wounds don’t get in the way. Because it is our woundedness that snags at our sleeves, plucking at our best intentions, reminding us that we were not always greeted with joy.
But what if, instead of seeing one another as a burden to be borne, we embraced one another as a joy to be shared? What if, in this community, this city, this church we talked less about who had been here longer, and what is changing, and instead, as Elizabeth, asked, “And who are we, that you have chosen us to come amongst, and how blessed are we to behold you?”
And if we are beginning to feel, “Well, who was Elizabeth to me? Where is my joy? Where is my blessing?” That’s fair. Elizabeth waited a long time, too. In the end, she decided to make her own joy, by choosing to find the fulfillment of God’s promises wherever the possibility presented itself.
God is our promise, and God is our satisfaction. We are Elizabeth, and the next person we meet, on the road to Bethlehem, on the way to Christmas, might just be bearing the incarnate image of God, if we will only open our eyes, and our hearts, to see God’s promise fulfilled.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Image: La Visitacion (detail), by El Greco (public domain)