The other unexpected pregnancy: Elizabeth and Zechariah

Sun, Dec 23rd 2018 06:00 am

The gospel reading for this coming fourth Sunday of Advent recounts Mary's "hasty" visit to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-45). Many reflections on this passage focus on Mary and rightly so since verse 42 is in the first part of our Hail Mary.

The important backstory, why Mary goes to Elizabeth, is found in 1:5-25, the annunciation to Zechariah. This priest and his wife, Elizabeth, are described as "righteous before God" and observant of the Law. However, they are childless "because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years." Then the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah while he is burning incense in the Temple. Gabriel announces that "your wife will bear a son and you shall name him John."

This account connects Elizabeth and Zechariah with the childless parents of Genesis, most closely with Abraham and Sarah, both advanced in years. Both Abraham and Zechariah reply to the a revelation from God with "How shall I know this?" (Gen 15:8; Lk:1:18). Both men are skeptical about their wives' pregnancies, but only Zechariah is struck speechless. Another couple, Hannah and Elkanah, parents of the prophet Samuel, are childless (1 Samuel 1:9-15). Then, in a temple sanctuary, the priest Eli reveals to Hannah that she will have a son who would drink neither wine nor strong drink," just as Gabriel said of John. All three of these pregnancies occur through normal married intercourse.

Elizabeth praises God for removing the "disgrace" of her barrenness (1:25). Barrenness was a disgrace since it appears that the couple was not blessed by God (Exodus 23:25-26).  Another barren matriarch, Rachel, beloved wife of Jacob, would choose death rather than be barren. She too speaks of God taking away her "disgrace" when she conceived Joseph (Gen 30:23). In Jesus' time barrenness was considered a curse or even a punishment for sin. Yet Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous.

Six months later Gabriel appears to Mary asking her to be the mother of Jesus, Son of the Most High. In answer to Mary's question Gabriel tells Mary she will become pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit; furthermore, she will know that he speaks the truth because Elizabeth has conceived a child in her old age and that "nothing is impossible with God."

Fast forward to the birth of Jesus. An angel announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds and gives them a sign - the baby in the manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. The shepherds go with haste to see the sign. Many reflections on Mary's visit to Elizabeth present Mary as journeying to help Elizabeth during her pregnancy. There is not even a hint of this in the Gospel. (Actually this implies that pregnant women of Elizabeth's time were weak, for which we have no evidence). Rather Mary travels with haste to see the sign that Gabriel referred to, Elizabeth's pregnancy, and to rejoice with Elizabeth at the marvels God had done for both of them.

When we attend the Eucharistic celebration on Christmas, what sign do we come to see? Surely it is the presence of the Lord in the Word and in the Sacrament. If we look around we will also see God's presence in one another and can ask how these others have experienced the workings of God in their lives. Thinking of this especially during the distribution of the Eucharist can lead all of us to marvel at the Lord's presence in our world. Our presence at the Eucharist is sign to others and an assurance of the truth of God's promises to each of us.  

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