My name is Elizabeth, and I have travelled across time with quite a story to tell. I am an old woman now. I was considered old even then. I had not yet born a child, or specifically a son, for my husband Zechariah. It was a disgrace to be barren in those days, so I was a woman in deep disgrace, despite my upbringing in a priestly family, and my marriage to a priest. None of that mattered because I could not bear a son for my husband. In those days, no one thought to blame anyone but the woman. Women did not matter much except to have children and care for the children, and sons were more valued than daughters. I have noticed that, even with all the advances made in your time, it is still hard on a woman to not be able to bear a child. Married and single women ache, especially as they get older and yet have not borne a child. I feel for those women, for I have felt what they feel.
But for me, there came a miracle, in my old age! An angel of the Lord appeared to my husband Zechariah (Of course, to the man, not to the woman!) and told him that I would finally bear him a son. The angel said to name him John (though first sons were to be named for the father), and that he would be a servant of the Lord, turning people to God, and preparing the way for the much awaited Messiah. Though he was a praying man, Zechariah, bless his heart, did not believe the angel, because he thought I was too old to have children, and he too old to father one. Because of his unbelief, he was made mute, he could not speak. He told me all of this by writing it down. Fortunately, my priestly family made sure that I could read. Many women of my time were not taught to read, and so we might not have been able to communicate when Zechariah could not speak.
Indeed I did conceive, and it was not easy. I had a lot of morning sickness, though not as much as that English princess in your news recently. It is not easy to be older and pregnant, so I kept to myself, as most women of my time did when they were with child. Now, women heavy with child go everywhere, easily showing the growing baby! It is so different, but there is so much more freedom for women now. I pray you use it wisely.
Zechariah, though he did not believe I could conceive, was a kind husband. He did not mistreat me, as other men did their wives. He did not, at least in the privacy of our home, regard me as property, as other men did. I was not subjected to beatings or verbal tirades simply because I had done something he did not like. No woman should have to endure such abuse. I am sure that God does intend not for anyone to live that way.
As I stayed in seclusion, feeling better, but getting bigger, my younger cousin Mary came to visit me. It was such a surprise, though women often visited one another in our times of seclusion. But Mary was very young, barely a teenager, and yet she looked so mature as she entered the house, saying "Greetings!" And the miraculous thing was, as soon as I heard her voice, the child in my womb leaped, and I knew, I knew, that this was no ordinary visit. It was as if I had been visited by the angel who had visited Zechariah and Mary. I knew in an instant that Mary too was pregnant, and not with just any child, but with the child my son would herald. Mary would bear the Messiah. I knew this in my soul, and I said it out loud to her in my exuberance – "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" Mary later told me about the visit of the angel to her, telling her that she would bear a son to be named Jesus, who was the Son of God. The angel also told her about my pregnancy. Mary was incredulous at the angel’s words, but unlike my husband, she believed and accepted. And she came to see me right away.
Now, again, I am so glad I can read, for I have looked at this Bible you are so fortunate to have. We had only word of mouth with which to spread the good news. Only priests were allowed to read the Bibles, and many people could not even read. So you should count yourselves as fortunate to have this book that tells all the truths about God and the Messiah. Read it and study it often! And live by these inspiring words as you struggle through the trials and the joys of life on this earth.
But I have seen in this Bible that the song that followed this joyous visit is now attributed to Mary’s mouth. That is well and good, for Mary was surely a greater woman than I. Yet if the truth be told, it was I who burst into song. Some of the earliest manuscripts of your Bible show this. But it made more sense for this song to be Mary’s song, I guess, so, with time, the text changed and gave those words to her.
Yet first they were mine, the one who had been made so low in barrenness, then lifted by the gift of a very special child. I remembered my Bible, and sang a song much like the song of Hannah when she realized she was no longer barren, and rejoiced that God had answered her prayers with a baby to be dedicated to holy work. Her baby was the one who became the great prophet Samuel. She and I were more experienced than Mary, and we knew more about the happenings of the world. Mary was still so young, so naïve and trusting. Like Hannah, I had seen the injustices, the way the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the powerful care not a bit about the plight of the powerless. We saw the hungry beggars in the streets (and you still have beggars in the streets today, I see). Some things never change.
So my song celebrated our Lord’s renewal, the reversal of all of these injustices imposed by the rich and powerful upon the weak and helpless. It is okay with me for this song to be attributed to sweet Mary, the mother of Jesus. For she grew to know so much, and to see so much, and to see her son die on a cross, like a criminal. My son too met such a terrible end, also treated like a criminal by that awful King Herod. People thought he was a little strange, my son John. He dressed like a hermit and ate foods of the earth (You call these organic now). But John did such good work baptizing people and pointing them towards God’s Kingdom come to being in the Christ. Jesus was indeed so good, so strong, so caring. So was my son John. And yet both of these good young men died like criminals, disregarded and discarded by the powers that ruled our land.
People can be so cruel to one another. There are too many shootings and killings in the news lately, the worst those children in school, so innocent. We did not have these things called guns in my time. It seems to me that weapons of war keep getting worse and worse, capable of killing more and more people. They kill not just the armies of the enemy, but innocent people, children and teenagers, women and men, young and old. Why do we raise weapons against one another rather than follow the Prince of Peace? Why does anyone need these guns that maim and kill? Only the armies and the guards (I think you call them the police) should have these arms, it seems to me. They are trained to use them, and the rest of the people are not.
It is sad to see the ways that people are divided in your world, each hiding in their own homes, instead of, as we were, gathering together in community, sharing meals and belongings, helping one another harvest the fields. In my time, we had to help one another, or we would not have made it through life. We cared for one another, for our children and our elderly in our own homes. We welcomed the stranger, the foreigner, for they had no where else to stay. We lived and shared in community.
My song (Mary’s song) came from my heart, which we see as the center of all being. It celebrated the God who creates us all, and our world for which we are to take care, the Lord’s great gift to us. Still, the world is hard, it is full of suffering, much of it caused by people like you and me. We hurt each other in so many ways. May we instead hold on to God’s promise to us of good things, of love and mercy, of justice and peace. May we remember that out of our deep barrenness, God can bring hope and even joy.
Mary stayed with me until the child that leaped at her coming was born. On his 8th day, the priests came to circumcise him, as according to the Scriptures it must be done. Zechariah still could not speak, and they wanted to name him after his father. But though it was not my place to do so, I spoke up, and said, "No, he is to be called John." Still, I was only a woman, lowly even though I had borne a son. So they did not believe me, and they turned to Zechariah. He asked for a tablet, and wrote that the baby was to be named John. And, glory be, that is when he was able to speak again! He too burst into song, a song of thanks for the Savior to come, the one who would bring "light to those who sit in darkness."
Remember my story, our story, as Luke told it, if you will. Remember it because it too points the way to the Christ, the Savior. This season that you call Advent takes its name from a word in the Latin language of old, which means "coming." You wait for the coming of the Christ child again. I tell you, he has already come to be with you, and he lives in you, in each one of you. Look for his presence in your midst, even with the terrible things that happen in life. Help him to come among those who sit in darkness, with your caring deeds and comforting words. Remember that, as the angel told Mary, nothing is impossible with our God.
I end my time with you with a psalm prayer, found in a book (another new thing for me. We had papyrus for writing, but only the well educated could write), written by a man named Edward Hays. Hear now as we make this our prayer, each and every one of us.
Psalm of an Advent Ear
(from Edward Hays, Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim)
With prayerful pleas
And Advent songs of longing,
I await the birth of God’s Anointed One
Come, O Gift of heaven’s harmony,
And attune my third ear,
The ear of my heart,
So that I may hear,
Just as Mary, faithful woman of Israel heard.
O God, the time is short,
These days are too few
As I prepare for the feast
Of the birth of Mary’s son.
Busy days, crowded to the brim,
With long lists of gifts to buy,
And things that must be done.
Show to me, also your highly favored child,
How to guard my heart
From noise and hurry’s whirl,
So that I might hear your voice
Calling my heart to create and empty space
That might be pregnant with heaven’s fire.
Quiet me within,
Clothe my body in peacefulness,
That your Word
Once again may take flesh –
This time, within me –
As it did in holy Mary,
Long Advent days ago.
Ringe, Sharon H., Luke (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1995)
The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible: New Testament Women (Volume 13) (Abingdon Press, TN, 1999)
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible