“Elizabeth – a faithful daughter of Yahweh”
Sunday 23 December 2019
As I reflected on today’s gospel reading from Luke, for the very first time it struck me that Elizabeth was the first person to acknowledge the presence of the Lord Jesus – albeit he was not yet born. She says: “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
In accordance with the timelines in the text, Mary could hardly have been showing any signs of being pregnant, and yet Elizabeth is able to greet her with the words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
So, we might ask ourselves: “Who is this Elizabeth who seems to be so in tune with the plans of God?”
All of the evidence that we can find about her is contained in this first chapter of Luke’s gospel. She is the first of many women that Luke will see fit to highlight in his account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The other gospel writers do not give so much prominence to women. As a small advertisement, if you want to find out more about this significant role that Luke gives to women, make sure you attend the course on Luke’s gospel that will be running twice in the parish in 2019.
I am assuming that you are all familiar with the story: about the angel appearing to Zechariah ion the Temple and telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth will have son who they are to name John; about Zechariah being struck dumb because of his lack of faith in the promise.
But back to Elizabeth. In Luke 1.5, we are told that she is a descendent of Aaron. If you know your Old Testament, then you will realise that that means she belongs to the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe of Israel. She is married to Zechariah, who is also a descendent of Aaron through the line of Abijah, and therefore also a member of the tribe of Levi. In fact, he carried out priestly duties in the temple as is his obligation and that is where he experiences a vision of the angel Gabriel.
Luke 1.6 gives us a vital piece of information about Elizabeth, and Zechariah for that matter. We are told: “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” In other words, Elizabeth and Zechariah were faithful Jews, living exactly how faithful Jews should.
Luke 1.7 then gives us another telling piece of information: “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years”.
We need to pause and consider the implication of this information. Firstly, we need to understand how procreation was understood at that time. Unlike the reality of the situation that we know today, it was thought that the seed for the new person was provided entirely by the male. The seed was planted in the female by the male and the female contributed nothing intrinsic to the new life. The female merely provided the environment for the seed to grow and mature into the fully formed human.
What this view meant was that if a couple were unable to conceive a child, it was automatically assumed that it was the female who was barren. It would only become apparent that the male might be “barren” if he divorced his wife and was unable to have children with another woman. Although, that would not be conclusive either, because the view could be taken that he had been unfortunate to choose another wife who was deemed to be barren.
In Elizabeth’s circumstance, because we are told that the couple were “getting on years”, we can assume that they have been married since they were very young, as was the custom, and that the lack of children in the marriage was considered to be due to Elizabeth being barren.
When we consider this in the light of the statements about Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s righteousness, we form the picture of a woman who believes that she is doing everything she can to be a faithful daughter of Yahweh, and yet she is being punished for reasons unknown. But despite that, she does not waver in her faithfulness.
And this faithfulness is exemplified in her insistence on calling the newborn son “John” despite that not being a family name. The neighbours and relatives we are told wanted to name the child Zechariah after his father. After all, wasn’t it a fitting thing to honour the father who has finally been able to have a child in his later years.
But no. The faithful woman, Elizabeth, who has born the shame of being thought of as barren, as punished by God despite her apparent holy living, that Elizabeth intervenes in and insists that his name will be John – the name the angel gave him. And why John? Well because names are important. Names say something about the child and the circumstances. And what does John mean? John means Yahweh is gracious. Elizabeth knows that this is no ordinary child. This child is all about God’s graciousness to her who has been shamed and no doubt ridiculed for remaining faithful despite her apparent barrenness.
Elizabeth, the faithful, long suffering daughter of Yahweh is in tune with God and the things of God. She knows the depth of God’s mercy towards her. She knows her cousin is carrying the saviour of the world. Why even her own body and the child within respond in the presence of the newly pregnant Mary.
I think that there is something that we can all take from the example of Elizabeth. We all have various challenges in our lives that we constantly ask God to take from us or fix. And we are not immune from thinking that God is somehow punishing us for something we have done or for something about the way we live. We think that we are doing the right thing. We think that we are being faithful sons and daughters of God and yet we still have to endure these challenges. The temptation is to give up and say that if being the best person I can be is not God enough for God, then I won’t bother.
Elizabeth gives us another path to follow. The path of faithfulness to God, who is, in the end, always faithful. Let us ask God for the perseverance to follow Elizabeth’s example of faithfulness.
Fr Allan Paulsen