A disgrace, and a sadness: Elizabeth was barren. No son to carry on Zechariah’s name. No tiny squeals of delight to fill their home. No baby to suck her life-giving breasts. Breasts, like the rest of her old body, that could no longer give life.
But . . . Elizabeth conceived. At first, she dared not believe it. “ . . . for five months she remained in seclusion” (Luke 1:24). But her body began to prove it. Still she hid. Did she fear her body would yet cruelly disappoint her? Did she have to ponder her husband’s words about that fearful day in the temple? Simple words he crudely scribbled after being struck dumb for disbelieving an angel’s words.
Zechariah the priest. That day he, from among so many, had been chosen by lot to serve in the sanctuary. He had been humbled—and grateful. At his age it was likely his last opportunity.
He’d stepped solemnly into the sanctuary to offer incense. Suddenly, to the right of the altar (he wrote to her), an angel had appeared. Even if his words were abbreviated, they were enough to make her gasp. The angel had announced Zechariah’s wife would give birth to a son who would be great before the Lord and be filled with the Spirit even before birth. Was he now, she wondered, as he grew inside her womb?
But it was this prophecy that most astonished her. “With the Spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him . . . “ (Luke 1:17). Zechariah had been quite clear about those words. And about how the angel had struck him dumb, because he hadn’t believed any of them.
Her son . . . her son . . . would go before him–Messiah!
So Elizabeth hid herself. At least until her tummy proved the prophecy. Secretly she rejoiced in the removal of her disgrace. Quietly she pondered if her son’s mission were true and how her boy–her boy– would announce the Messiah.
A month after Elizabeth’s seclusion, her young relative Mary visited. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’” (Luke 1:41-43).
Two mothers-to-be. One impossibly un-barren. One pregnant without a man. Both caught up in the wonder of miraculous births of miraculous sons. Two women rejoicing at what the Lord had done.
Neither knew the suffering that lay ahead. Mary’s son, the Messiah, would be rejected and put to death by Israel’s religious leaders and Rome’s self-centered king. Elizabeth’s son would call Israel to get ready for the Messiah by a baptism of repentance. And would publicly condemn a king for adulterous sex. In the end, the woman of that affair would shrewdly take his head.
* * *
How foreign such words sound at Christmas! Christmas is about good-news angels, worshiping wise men, a cuddly baby in a manger, peace on earth. We barely notice the holy family escaping to Egypt from Herod’s rage that slaughtered Bethlehem’s young boys. We sing happy songs that welcome the king. But we forget powerful men didn’t.
Our country celebrates while disconnecting the child from the man the world crucified. And John? John the miracle born to an old barren woman. We last see him led from prison to satisfy the spiteful wish of an immoral woman–a wish by a sex-and liquor-drunken king afraid to look small before other small men. John’s good story ends with his head presented on a platter.
Would Elizabeth, if still alive these many years later, have crept into seclusion? Would she have feared for her own life? Would she have doubted God and condemned Zechariah for bringing such outlandish “angel talk” to her home? Or would she have stood as tall as her old bent frame allowed to cry “Amen” to John’s now-silent words?
And what of us? We’ve domesticated the message of Christmas. Separated it from the violence it brought. Allowed the world to make it a sweet fairy tale or a religious bedtime story. Might it be that the church in America has largely gone into seclusion, like Elizabeth? Have we hidden the angel’s prophecy to Zechariah within the four walls of our sanctuary? Maybe we need to find ways to come out. To trust the Holy Spirit to fill us. And to endure whatever opposition we must to tell the whole Christmas story.
Maybe we need more John the Baptists this Christmas. And more Elizabeths, who come out of hiding.