I fear I may have missed some of the beauty of Advent. I missed the lessons from two pregnant cousins as they reveal for us the blessing of a joyful expectation—lessons from the pregnancy narratives.
We are at a decided advantage over Elizabeth and Mary. He have had more than 2000 years of Luke’s insights using the literal examples of expecting. We know what Christmas is bringing. We know that the Messiah has come and dwells among us. And it is that knowing that allows our waiting to be so joyful. Elizabeth and Mary did not fully understand all the ways their lives, indeed their world, was to change and yet they were most joyful in their expectation of whatever it is that God is doing in their lives.
What’s interesting about Luke’s gospel is that it starts by inviting us into the private lives of men and women and into an intimate conversation between Elizabeth and Mary to guide our own times of waiting. It places two obscure women at the center of preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Luke was an educated man, he knew full well what topics were acceptable in public discourse and which were to be private matters, and pregnancy was most definitely a private matter—a conversation left to women, sometimes catty women, who shame those who don’t give birth. And yet Luke launches his gospel with just those private topics: pregnancy! virginity! infertility! Post-menopausal women! conception! Things that were generally kept behind close doors. But Luke shares their story so that we may be able to experience joyful expectation.
Pregnancy for these two women had very different implications. Pregnancy for Mary could bring shame on her, on her family, on Joseph; it could have led to her death by stoning. For Elizabeth, pregnancy alleviates a lifetime of shame. Elizabeth’s pregnancy miracle is offered as a sign to affirm Mary’s miracle pregnancy.
We know a little about Elizabeth and Zechariah: he was a priest; they live in a very poor region so they are not well-heeled by any means; and we also know that they are upright in the eyes of God; blameless in his sight. This last fact, God’s respect for Elizabeth and Zachariah, may not have been known to the couple; they lived in a culture that has told them God has punished Elizabeth, for some unknown, unwitnessed sin, by making her barren.
Elizabeth doesn’t have the benefit of an angel announcing the upcoming events and helping her to interpret them. What is clear is however is that Elizabeth immediately understands her pregnancy is a gift from God: “So the Lord has done for me at a time he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others” (Luke 1:25). Her pregnancy ends one period of waiting and shame and begins another time of expectation at the time the Lord has chosen. Her example is a testament that it’s God who decides the period of expectation—when the time comes and when it may end—but we are the ones who make the waiting joyful, by knowing that whatever is to come, comes from God and it is good.
Hers is not a passive waiting period but rather a time of rejoicing and trust that the outcome is in the hands of God. As part of this time of expectation, Elizabeth goes into seclusion, presumably to pray and rest, to prepare.
In the next pregnancy narrative in Luke’s gospel, Mary’s great faith enables her, too, to experience great joyful expectation, knowing only that God is working in her life not where the journey will take her.
Life is changing for Mary and Elizabeth. We are told that after the Annunciation Mary immediately heads out to see her cousin. She travels to Judah, alone: unheard of in her time! As these two women come together, when Mary visits Elizabeth they continue the process of reveling for each other (and for us) the meaning of the miracles that have taken place in their own lives. It is a time for two women to share in joyful expectation.
One might think that, upon seeing Mary, Elizabeth would be bursting with her big news. But no. Elizabeth puts aside her own joy, her own astounding news, to put Christ in the center of the events, saying, “Who am I that the mother of My Lord should come to me?”
And with those words, Elizabeth showed her priorities were straight—for she was the first person to call the infant Jesus My Lord. And all because she understood firsthand the gift of pregnancy—a gift she and her cousin Mary rejoiced in together, with great expectation.
Gerardine Luongo is director of government relations at CURE International.