Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph and Zechariah - some advent thoughts
Inspired by last Sunday I have been thinking about the interwoven story of these four people; how the same occurrence can shame or save people, how our perception is focused or obscured by how the story is told and what we might notice in what is absent or silent in the story. Here are some thoughts on Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah along with a brief mention of Peter.
Elizabeth was old - she may have been shamed or embarrassed to not have had children. Barren. A terrible word only ever used to describe a woman. Even though her husband was a priest, others possibly thought it could be due to a family curse, or that she had been forgotten by God. Did they whisper as she walked past? When she becomes pregnant in her old age, is it finally seen as proof to everyone else that she is loved by God? Was it viewed as miraculous, or was she pitied once again, now due to the age at which she was having to give birth and look after a small child? Maybe they wondered if the child would even grow in time to look after her in her old(er) age? Little did they know that was not the path for her child anyway.
It wouldn't surprise me if there was still some separation between her and her community, given the extraordinary circumstances, even though she did survive childbirth at her age.
Is Elizabeth ever redeemed in the eyes of her community? Or does it follow her, a persistent, grey-clouded rumour hovering in the distance?
There is no story of Elizabeth being visited by an angel, instead, we must assume that Zechariah communicated his experience with her, carefully and probably apprehensively, writing out his experience for her, trying to remember the words the angel spoke. Was he now ashamed of his words? Did he try to hide them from her? Even if Elizabeth was unsure about his story, eventually his silence and her swelling belly must have been enough to convince her. Once she has given birth to John and speaks his name, she is questioned and not believed until Zechariah is given back his voice in order to confirm her proclamation. Can you imagine the eye roll after Zechariah's repeated her words (Luke 1:60-63) and then people accepted the name?
Maybe Elizabeth teaches us that sometimes waiting is the answer, and that, unfortunately, sometimes we will not be believed until a man has repeated our words but that does not change the fact that our prayers have been answered, nor, that the words we spoke were true. We also learn that it's important to have within your community older women who support younger women who are, apparently, in the shameful position of being pregnant too soon (and yet, if Elizabeth had been pregnant too soon, maybe she could have had more than one child? We can only wonder at her thoughts). Remember, too old, or too young, in our communities, we are often far too prepared to shame others if we think it's not quite right and we need these maverick old women who will not do this.
Elizabeth and her baby leapt for joy at Mary's arrival, as she was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41), perhaps her joy opening the floodgates for Mary's beautiful words. It is these two women who are the first in the gospels to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Mary was young - she may have been shamed or embarrassed to have a child too early. When she becomes pregnant, there is no mention of how she and Joseph talk about their experiences. Does she go first, or does he? Is there an appropriate time to introduce the topic of an angelic conversation affecting the future of them both? To discuss a wedding, and a future together, despite, or because of, a miraculous pregnancy? Joseph agrees to still marry her, possibly saving her life, and she is accepted by her relative Elizabeth, probably saving her sanity, and offering her friendship.
The connection between Mary and Elizabeth was surely significant - the song of Mary spills out when they connect, and she systematically breaks down all the levels of power in relationships (Luke 1:46-56). Maybe she spent the time travelling to Elizabeth's mulling over the thoughts of this song, preparing herself, gathering herself, reflecting, praying, listening, wondering. Was seeing Elizabeth's now pregnant form the final confirmation of her angelic visit? Joseph had stayed with her. She was pregnant. And now, even Elizbeth was pregnant, even though she is beyond her expected childbearing years. Just as the angel said.
Is Mary ever redeemed in the eyes of her community? Or does it follow her, a persistent, grey-clouded rumour hovering in the distance?
Mary's time with Elizabeth was three months, and Elizabeth was six months pregnant so she must have been present for the birth of John. What an ideal opportunity to learn what was coming, to prepare for something she will soon experience but without close family around her. How scary that could have been.
Maybe Mary teaches us that sometimes, youthful naiveite or enthusiasm is useful, and that when we are visited by angels, it is best to believe them, but mostly that it is beneficial to go to the older women in your life when you need help, for they will be there for you.
Joseph is silent in the gospels. His angel visitation is not even mentioned in Luke, as instead, Mary's visit is clearly satisfactory for the purpose of that story. Joseph's dream where he is visited by an angel of the Lord is told only in Matthew (Is this Gabriel also? It would make sense if it was, but why a dream for Joseph but not Mary or Zechariah?), and his agreement to still marry Mary (Matthew 1:20-24) is shown through actions, not words. When Joseph again dreams of an angel warning him to move his family to Egypt, we hear no words from him, and instead, we are told of one who acts silently but decisively to protect his family (Matthew 2:133-14). This continues throughout Jesus' early life. Joseph acts: he takes Mary to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-6). Joseph and Mary present Jesus at the temple (Luke 2:21:40) where they hear from both Simeon and Anna, and neither have their words included in the story, but clearly, they treasure these words, for them to be told to someone else, perhaps a story told at night to a young Jesus? Or recounted later, on the road with Jesus? Each year he and Mary take Jesus to the Passover festival, and a young Jesus gets away from his parents. When found in the temple, and it is Mary who questions him, not Joseph. (Luke 2:41-50).
Maybe Joseph teaches us that sometimes when we are prepared to believe and trust, actions is what moves us and those around us, forward; that words are not everything, and that gender roles are not always what we might believe them to be.
Zechariah was silenced after he questioned the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:18) until he confirms Elizabeth's declaration that their baby's name is John (Luke 1:63). Then he calls out in joy, anointing the path of their son, who prepares the people for Jesus (Luke 1:67-79).
When Mary talks with Gabriel, she asks a question; 'How will this be… since I am a virgin?' (Luke 1:34). A question seeking clarity, not expressing incredulity, it would seem.
Zechariah's question, though, is 'How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years." (Luke 1:18). It seems to be a question asking for certainty, surety, confirmation. He was a priest and would have been familiar with the story of Sarah and Abraham. And yet, maybe his questioning was in the spirit of unbelief, sarcasm, and possibly the disbelieving laughter of Sarah, for his voice is taken, and he is instead given silence and plenty of time to think and pray and consider the words of the angel and prepare his words for when his voice is released.
Maybe Zechariah teaches us that sometimes, even with all our knowledge and experience, silence is the best option.
Much later on, when surely Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah had all died, Mary alone was the surviving witness of all of their angelic visitations all those years before. Her commitment to her son is demonstrated through her presence at his death (Luke 23:49), and her burial of him (Luke 23:55-56). And yet, her discovery of his resurrection was not believed, maybe shaming her once again (Luke 24:1-12). The story tells us of the women, 'Then they remembered his words' alerting us to their awareness of Jesus' teachings of his own resurrections, and yet we are told Peter "went away, wondering to himself what had happened" for apparently, Jesus' teachings did not occur to him at this time. Maybe we learn from Peter that the ability to see and to understand may take time, even when we have seen Jesus face to face.
The mother of Jesus, one who had raised Jesus, experienced an angelic visitation, travelled with her preacher and healer son, was not believed by those men who had travelled with her for many years and knew her as the mother of their teacher. Silence can be deafening.
We are not told how Mary reacted to their unbelief. We can only wonder if Mary pled her case, trying to convince them, or if she turned away, allowing the men to come to their own realisation, simply staying with them until they did.
The story of each of these people is intricately linked, told, and re-told as we live and re-live their experiences through the liturgical season each year. Each time we have the opportunity to re-visit the story and re-visit what we might see and hear in each of them. As their stories begin to sound more or less familiar to our own experiences, we may learn to see new things, listen for different voices, notice different silences, as well as what is absent. What new words, new silence, or maybe even, what old words, old silences, do we notice this time we listen to their story?
With thanks and recognition to Kyla @kylajean for sparking most of these thoughts and from whom I probably stole a lot of this.