We invite you to listen to this song, "Elizabeth: Visitation Song," by Kathryn Wenr
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God during his section’s turn of duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know that this will happen? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he was unable to 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. When his time of service was ended, he returned to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me in this time, when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (Luke 1:5-25 NRSV)
During the Christmas season, for a good reason, we tend to focus on the birth of Jesus and the miracle of Mary becoming pregnant. Sometimes we forget that the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth and Zechariah was a miracle too. The story of Elizabeth reminds us of Sarah (Genesis 17-21) and Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2) in the Old Testament, who, like Elizabeth, faithfully served God but struggled with infertility and with the stigma that came along with having no children in that time. For these three women, God saw their faithfulness, listened to their prayers, and gifted them miracle babies who would grow up to play an important role in God’s big story: Isaac, Samuel, and John. John, of course, plays the role of preparing the way for Jesus.
It would have been quite an amazing pregnancy for Elizabeth. Beyond the excitement of waiting for a baby she prayed would come for years, there were signs that God was at work in a special way. Throughout the whole nine months, her husband Zechariah was unable to speak or hear, so they could only communicate through writing. For the first five months, Elizabeth stayed away from everyone. In month six, Elizabeth’s relative Mary arrived to visit her. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, the unborn baby John jumped inside her womb, and Elizabeth understood the significance of what was happening. She blessed Mary and her child, celebrating that the mother of her Lord was visiting. Elizabeth celebrated both the work of God in her own life and the work of God in the life of her young relative, Mary. At this point, Elizabeth got the chance to hear Mary’s famous song. We see both women together, sharing how their miracle pregnancies are part of a much greater story of God’s work throughout the generations. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for the final three months until the baby was born. When the baby was finally born and named, Zechariah could speak again, and the first thing he did with his voice back was praised God with another Spirit-inspired song about God rescuing the people.
Like pregnancy, Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. We wait for a particular date on the calendar, but we also wait for Jesus to come again someday to heal our world. It is easy to get busy with all the preparations for Christmas: buying and wrapping gifts, making travel plans, and attending special events. At Christmas, it is also easy to become like Zechariah, going through the motions of religious practice and getting surprised when an angel actually shows up with a message from God.
This Advent season, how will you make time and space to pay attention to what God is doing? How will you make space to slow down and reflect? How will you respond with gratitude to God’s blessings? How will you celebrate the work of God in the lives of your relatives, friends, and church family? It might not look like Elizabeth’s five months of isolation, Zechariah’s 9+ months of reduced communication, Mary’s 3-month visit to Elizabeth, or the great songs of Mary and Zechariah. Maybe it will look like a note in your journal or a few minutes of quiet silence and prayer. Our family has a tradition we call the “Blessings Board,” and every New Year, we take the time to sit down together and write out our blessings from the year on a big poster. It is a great time for sharing with each other, remembering the highlights of the year, and thanking God for the way He continues to bless us individually and as a family. Even when the year has been hard and the future is uncertain, there are always blessings. If we go into Advent with the mindset that God is at work, we can notice what we might otherwise miss and connect the dots between our personal experiences and God’s greater plans. Like Elizabeth, we can remember the amazement, the wonder, and the “wow” of the Christmas story.
Rachel McNally is a Ph.D. Student in Political Science and ASBE Board Member