When I lived in North Carolina, before I was a Pastor, I was fortunate enough to go on a women’s retreat with women of all ages. I was 22 at the time, and we had women in every generation, stretching up to some women in their 80’s. It was on that retreat that I got to know Elizabeth Storey. Elizabeth was an amazingly wise woman, who had been through a lot in her lifetime, having grown up in South Africa and had been a part of tearing down apartheid there and helping the nation start over. And now, living in a new place away from friends, Elizabeth was still caring for others, and specifically, for her mother-in-law. She was sharing with me how isolated her mother-in-law felt, now that she wasn’t in her home that she recognized; was attended to by people she didn’t always recognize; and how isolated she felt. And then Elizabeth told me, that aside from doing her laundry, cleaning up her room, reading her letters from friends, what she felt was the most important thing when she visited her, was to bring a candle with her, to light it in her presence, and to share with her where she had recently seen God’s light. That room that she sits in, she told me, has filled up with her own worries and fears. I bring a symbol of God’s light so that maybe she’ll be able to see a tangible sign in her own life and experience a bit of the sacred presence that is with us. As I listened to Elizabeth talk about bringing God’s light into this place of darkness, I realized that it was Elizabeth’s own experience of the darkness of this life that made her think to bring light into her mother-in-law’s darkness.
In our Gospel this morning, as we continue the story that happens before the story of Jesus’ birth, we hear of another Elizabeth, who lived through her own isolating circumstances, her own darkness. She is the wife of Zechariah, a priest of Israel. She has not been able to carry a child up until this point in her life, what some had considered too late for her to conceive. And it is out of this loneliness, this quiet suffering, that Elizabeth finds her voice of courage as she too points to the tangible reminders of God’s love in her life and in the life of those around her.
We really don’t know much about Elizabeth’s reaction when she realizes she is pregnant. We don’t know how soon Zechariah told her the news from the angel that she would be able to conceive, whether he believed it enough to share it until after Elizabeth told him she was pregnant. After all, Zechariah had lost his voice, and Elizabeth wasn’t there to hear the angel herself.
But there are a few things we do know about Elizabeth. We know that when Mary needed a place to go because she was an unwed pregnant woman, she went to Elizabeth. We know that when Elizabeth, knowing that Mary wasn’t married yet, opened her door to greet her, she blessed Mary and tells her that she is blessed among all women— which is probably not what her neighbors were saying about her. We also know that Elizabeth immediately exclaims that the baby in Mary’s womb is her Lord— the first person in the Bible to call Jesus Lord. And we also know that she says, “Blessed is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises made to her,” which we always assume she says about Mary, but perhaps in that moment she realizes that it is true for herself as well.
Elizabeth is able to offer Mary solace; a place to hide for a few months; a place of sanctuary and safety; a place of comfort, joy, and laughter. And Elizabeth is able to offer all of these things precisely because she has faced her own worries, her own fears, her own darkness. Elizabeth is not a stranger to strange circumstances and yet she also has had enough life experience to know that God is with her in it, and to be present with Mary so that Mary knows God is with her as well. I like to think of these two women as finding in one another exactly the support they needed in this confusing time for both of them, that this time together gave them a chance to be angry at God’s timing— way late for Elizabeth and way too early for Mary— and to find hope in each other’s presence.
But there’s another time when we get to hear Elizabeth use her voice courageously. And that is when her son is born. You see it is Elizabeth, not Zechariah, who fulfills the angel’s prophesy and names their baby John.
This may not seem like a big deal in our day and age. Couples name their children all kinds of things and no one bats an eye. But in many cultures to this day, either a grandparent or the father is the one who is supposed to name the child, and the same was true in 1st Century Palestine. Zechariah is the one who was supposed to name his son. And, if they were to go with tradition, the first born son would most likely be named after the father. But Zechariah doesn’t have a voice. Even though he is the one who was visited by the angel, he was the one who was told to name his son John, he is not the one who fulfills what the angel tells him. When the time comes to name him, Elizabeth says that his name is John. And after looking at Zechariah, who asks for something to write on so he can agree with what she has said, two things happen— Zechariah’s voice immediately comes back, affirming that this is God’s will; and the people are filled with awe, asking themselves, “Who will this child become?” God’s light is so bright in that moment, that the people are startled and wonder what to do.
Rachel Naomi Remen, a writer and doctor, remembers the gift her Grandfather gave her on her fourth birthday. It wasn’t a usual gift for a four year old— it wasn’t a truck or a doll or some art supplies. Instead, Rachel’s grandfather gave her a story. Her grandfather, as she came to understand later, came from a mystical strand of Judaism and was an amazing storyteller. He was deeply faithful and shared with her often how beautiful the mysteries of the universe are. So on her fourth birthday, he told her this story from Jewish midrash about the birthday of the world: In the beginning, there only holy, sacred darkness. It pervaded everything. And then this world, this world of thousands of things, emerged from the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, like all stories, there was an accident. And the vessels containing the wholeness and light of the world, broke. And the light of the world was scattered into thousands of fragments of light and they fell into the cracks of the world. Our purpose, as humans, is to find the fragments of light and point them out, helping to heal the world by joining the fragments together again. Our power, as people of God, resides in our ability to both point out the light and to bring pieces of this light back together. It is a choice that we make— to be people who carry God’s light or to be people who hide God’s light. Zechariah wasn’t sure he could trust in the angel’s message; he wondered if the light that he saw was real because he had, so often, seen only darkness. Elizabeth, who has been in darkness as well, courageously chooses to be a person who carries God’s light, who names God’s presence when she sees God’s love at work. She does this with Mary, as Mary runs to her for safety and solace; and she does this again when her baby is born and she sees that indeed God has fulfilled God’s promise and she can fulfill the angel’s prophecy.
But there’s even more to this Jewish “rif” on the story of creation that comes to us from the Jewish Kabbalah tradition. And that is God’s part in all of this. It is clear, with Zechariah and Elizabeth, that God’s desires match theirs— they want a child and God desires to give them their son John. But it’s also clear that God’s dream is dramatically larger; God’s vision of what can be is so much bigger. The Holy Spirit, who shows up repeatedly in this story, before we ever get to Jesus’ birth, is doing so much more than Elizabeth, Zechariah, and their whole community could ever imagine. God’s light is not only reflecting in their lives, but will continue to be reflected into all of our lives through them and through their role in nurturing Jesus’ family and guiding people to Jesus.
And isn’t that just like God? To take our small, seemingly insignificant lives, and to bring light and love to the whole world in ways we will never even see?
I encourage you to find ways this Advent, to use your voice courageously. Share your story of where God’s been at work in your life this year on an ornament or in person, so that people can see a tangible sign of God’s grace. Take time, like Elizabeth, to create a space of sanctuary for someone in your life who needs it. Find words of blessing for someone who is scared and share that blessing with them. Look for the light of Christ. It is here. It is there. There are bits of it everywhere. Even in these days of darkness, God’s dreams are so much bigger than ours, and God’s light can be seen in everything and in everyone when we dare to look for that light.
Resources Consulted: On Being podcast w/Rachel Naomi Remen Interpretation Luke Commentary by Fred Craddock Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro