Thursday, December 07, 2006

Canterbury Evening Prayer Reflection 6 - Elizabeth (Advent)

Reflection on Luke 1:5-25, 39-45, 56-66 (Elizabeth and Zechariah)
In all three years of the lectionary, the Gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Advent tells the story of John the Baptist. What we do not get, however, is the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John’s parents. Only the Gospel According to Luke tells us of these two remarkable people and the circumstances surrounding the birth of he who cries in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord.” But if John the Baptist is an integral part of the story of the Incarnation, then his parents, and particularly his mother, are likewise integral to that all-important story – to the story of our faith.

Like most married couples, Elizabeth and Zechariah desperately wanted to have a child. Being persons of profound faith, both being from priestly families, they undoubtedly prayed endlessly, at least in the early years of their marriage, for a child – preferably a male child, who would carry on the family and be able to take care of them in their old age. But as time went by, and their prayers remained unanswered, it became obvious that they were not destined to have a child. This would have been a source of despair, particularly for Elizabeth. Not only did she not have her prayers answered and her dreams of motherhood fulfilled, she would have also had to endure pity and scorn from her neighbors. If she and Zechariah were unable to conceive, surely they must have done something to deserve their fate. For these antiquated and misguided impressions, Elizabeth would have had to endure disgrace.

But then, as our lesson for today tells us, the tables were turned. Literally, by the grace of God, Elizabeth was able to finally conceive a child. But not just any child. She would conceive and bear a son who would become one of the greatest prophets of all time, at least for Christians. She would be mother to the prophet who would bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New. He would point the way to the Messiah, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament – the Messiah who would be revealed through the writings of the New Testament.

In many ways, though, it is not John who first points the way to Jesus, but rather, Elizabeth. It is Elizabeth who first realizes that Mary is pregnant, and not only pregnant, but that Mary is carrying within her womb the Messiah. Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit – the only woman in all of Scripture to be so characterized. Because of this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth speaks from an inward witness and boldly asks “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

In that moment, Elizabeth knows unimaginable joy. Her dreams of having a child have been realized. Her disgrace at being barren has been removed. And she experiences the most wondrous joy of realizing, not just for her personally, but for all of humanity, for the whole world, that the Messiah is about to be born. In that moment, Elizabeth realizes something that we all long to experience – that God not only comes into the world, but God comes to us individually. God meets us where we are in our own particular life’s situations. God wants to be in relationship with each of us individually, and because of this, comes to us one by one.

We know from our own lives that relationships are delicate things, built one on one, built one person at a time. We have to invest our time and energy in those relationships if they are going to grow and to last. And each relationship is unique. Elizabeth learns first hand that the same is true of our relationships with God. God invests time and energy into building relationship with each of God’s beloved children. And because of this process, each relationship is individual and unique and precious. Through Christ, God comes to us to enter into a unique relationship. Through Christ, we enter into relationship with God. Advent is about the anticipation of that relationship. Advent is about preparation for that relationship – a relationship that is as unique as each of us, and that is as eternal as God.

John the Baptist may be credited with pointing the way to Jesus Christ, to the Messiah. But it was his mother Elizabeth who first recognized how God operates in the world, through individual relationships with each and every one of us – through relationships only made possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and through God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. During this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Christ, may we all be blessed with the joy and wonder that Elizabeth felt in the days leading up to the birth of our Messiah.

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