The old woman shuffled around the fire pit in the lean-to which sufficed for a kitchen. Propping herself on a cane, she bent down to check on the dough baking on the hot stones.
“Zechariah, I am getting too old for this!” (She continued muttering to herself, knowing that no response would be forthcoming.) “With my bad knees, I can’t even bend over to check the bread. With all this extra weight I’m carrying. I’ll probably topple right into the fire one of these days!”
“Zechariah, are you sure we can’t afford a serving girl? — I ache all over. My ankles are swollen the size of melons. I can hardly wiggle my toes anymore, they are so puffy! I am too old for this!”
“Zechariah – he isn’t much help these days. Oh, he tries. But ever since that day in the Temple, its like he’s in a trance. Sometimes he seems to look right through me. And not one word. Not one word! I tell you, sometimes its awfully quiet around here! See, here I am talking to myself again! – Old woman, you are really losing it!”
She continued lumbering slowly around the kitchen. Muttering to herself. It had been a hard few months for Elizabeth. Pregnant and at her age! She supposed she should be happy, but…. First she got a husband who couldn’t communicate – and not the usual male thing – he really can’t speak. His voice is gone, ever since that day in the Temple. Then came the nausea, then the weight gain – and on her arthritic knees! She didn’t know if she could make it three more months.
“Snap out of it, Elizabeth,” she jerked as if waking from a dream. “You’ve always wanted a baby. So, …God has bad timing! Having babies is for the young. But, still, what a gift! What a gift!
“It’s nearly time for Sabbath, the sun is almost down. I’ve got to get this baking finished so we can eat. Now lets see, …where is my Sabbath lamp?”
She straightened up a little, hurried either by the Sabbath or remembering her hope. She set the table. Sabbath lamp in its place near her plate. She drew a jug of wine. A few vegetables and a bit of mutton for Sabbath. She collected the bread from the fire, placed them on the hearth to stay warm and went to rouse Zechariah for dinner. Leaning on her cane, she moved to the window where she could see Zechariah sitting on the bench in the shade of the house. As she neared the window, she glimpsed an unusual sight. A traveler, a woman traveler, alone with her donkey. “They must be tired. She is not riding, but leading her donkey, his head is sagging. She is practically pulling the beast along the dusty street. She must find hospitality before the sun dips below the horizon and the Sabbath rest begins. There is not a moment to spare.”
Zechariah had seen her too and had already rushed to greet her.
“Well, that’s odd! …He seems to know her.”
He points her to the house and disappears around the back, leading the donkey to their stable. Poor Elizabeth – her eyes were as old as the rest of her and she could not tell who it was, no matter how hard she squinted.
The woman hurried to the threshold – she was a young woman – just a girl, really. Elizabeth could tell by the way she moved.
“Aunt Elizabeth! May God’s blessing be upon you and upon your house!”
“Mary? Is that you? Why yes, it is! What are you doing…
Elizabeth caught her breath. The baby had just kicked the air right out of her lungs. She grabbed her swollen belly. Then something something came over her. Her knees strengthened, her back straightened. All her complaining had left her body. She stood up, looked at the young woman framed in the doorway by the last rays of the sun, and she heard herself say,
“Bless you, Mary! And heaps of blessings on the child you will bear! Why come to me? You, the mother of the Lord? I am blessed beyond belief! As soon as I recognized your voice this child in me kicked for joy. Blessed are you, who believed that the promise could come true!”
Mary paused for a moment to wonder at this greeting. “And may God bless this house and all within its walls! Oh Elizabeth, look at YOU! – so matronly! Here, turn around, let me see that beautiful profile!
“You won’t believe what has happened! … Perhaps you would believe it, from what you just said. You and Zechariah may be the only people in the world who CAN believe the story I have to tell.”
“My parents are appalled. Joseph almost divorced me! I am on the very edge of a precipice, almost cast out into the street. Yes, I am pregnant, poor, and unmarried. Yet Elizabeth, please believe me! I have done no wrong! This (holding her belly) is something God is doing.”
“Mary. There is time for telling and listening to stories, but there is not much left of the sun. So let us sit around the Sabbath table and give thanks to God who does marvelous things for us. Let us first be thankful. Then, we will talk. Besides – here is Zechariah, in from taking care of your donkey. He will want to hear this. …But he won’t say anything. We get to do all the talking.”
The three washed their hands and feet. Then they all settled around the table. This was Elizabeth’s moment as woman of the house. She took a stick from the fire and lit the Sabbath lamp. She waves her hands over the candles, welcoming the Sabbath. She covers her eyes and recites the prayer she has said every Sabbath since she was married: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light. May you look with favor upon Zechariah in his silence, upon Mary in hope, and upon these two babies who you are sending to bring your Kingdom. Amen.”
Zechariah is puzzled by this blessing, but he watches silently as the bread is broken, the wine is poured and the meal begins.
Quickly the women fall into conversation.
Elizabeth, how are you feeling with this new life inside you? We thought you would never have this blessing.
I am too old for this! But I am well. The baby is strong and growing. You already know our story, let us hear yours.
Mary looked at Zechariah and began, “You may be able to understand this part. I was going about my chores when I became aware that I was not alone! A stranger stood looking at me! A magnificent stranger! It was the middle of the morning – it was not dream! It was a messenger from the Most High!
“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
I looked around to see who he was talking to. I was really terrified!
Zechariah became very animated. Trying to describe with his hands the messenger he saw.
Yes, just like that…
Went the one-sided conversation.
Mary could understand Zechariah, because she had seen the same messenger. For the first time since Zechariah returned from temple duty, he was fully alive, completely engaged in this conversation, even in his muteness.
“What did this messenger want from me? But he spoke softly and slowly. He bent down to my level, met my eyes. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ the words were as gentle as a lullaby. ‘You have found favor with God.’ I began to relax and open to the music of his words. He waited patiently for me to get my bearings, to calm myself and listen. You are going to become pregnant. You will have a son, and he will be the heir to the throne of David. He will even be called the Son of the Most High – his life and work will be so great. He is going to reign over the kingdom of Jacob forever.”
Both women formed the word together. In awe: “Messiah!”
“That is the only thing it could mean. We have been waiting forever for this news. And now, it is here, and I am right in the middle of it. So are you!”
Elizabeth reflected, “That’s what the messenger’s words to Zechariah meant then – about our son. Zechariah formed the words with his lips as Elizabeth gave them voice, “With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will go before him….” Our son is to be Elijah who goes before, to prepare the way, to announce the coming of the Messiah!
But you! Look at you! Mother of the Messiah! I can’t believe it! But I do believe it! God is moving among us again.
Our people have waited forever for this! And here, the ancient promises are being fulfilled right in front of me! I can’t believe it! I do believe it!
Silence fell. Their words were spent. The food was eaten. All sat back from the table and took a deep breath of the awe of the moment.
Finally Elizabeth spoke, and in her words was the wisdom of years. “You know, this child-bearing stuff is for the young. I’m sure you will enjoy much of it. But for me, it has not been easy. Yes, it is a gift. Yes, this child has taken away my shame in the village. But I am too old to watch my child reach adulthood. He will not be old enough to care for me in my final days. So, I’ve reflected – why me? I’ve discovered a few things in my reflections and in my prayers. Maybe you can see if any of this makes sense.
This child, while I am its mother, is not for me and Zechariah. Not for taking care of us in our old age, or for giving us grandchildren to fill our house with laughter, or to carry on our name. This child is a gift, but not for us – he is a gift to our people.
I am an old woman. I would like to rest, to be cared for. I want to enjoy my family, go to the synagogue, hear the familiar Scriptures read, sit in the same place, hear the same voices. But everything is changing. This child is part of it – but so are all of you young people. It’s a new world. God is doing something new.
I won’t live long enough to see it. But you will. You will be right in the middle of it.
One part of me is sad – I would like to have things my way – especially now that I am old. But the other part of me full of hope. God has stepped in, again the creator of the universe, and let loose an abundance unknown for so long. I feel perched on a razor’s edge between the outrageous and the possible. Which way will I tip? You coming here is pushing me towards the possible. What the prophets promised is nearly here.
Peace, the hungry filled
all people will see light
Elizabeth dreamily trails off.
I don’t like change. I want to know what to expect one day to the next. I don’t want my body to change. I don’t want the world around me to change. It brings a seed of fear in the pit of my stomach. But God is doing a new thing. And that is good. But it doesn’t mean all the fear is gone. I live in both worlds – eager for the new ways and afraid for the old to pass away. It is the posture of hope.
You are young, but maybe you, too, know something of what I say. Maybe you, too, get glimpses in the night of what is coming. It may scare you, too. There will certainly be painful moments, when people simply don’t understand what you are part of. You have had a taste of misunderstanding already.
But it is good, because God is doing it….
It was now completely dark outside. The lamp began to sputter, reminding the women that it was time for sleep. Zechariah had already nodded off in his chair. Now, let’s go to bed.
And Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Christmas Day is only a few days away. May it be for us a time for pondering. In the midst of all the family, traditions, gifts, food and lights, may there be a moment of peace on earth, a taste of the hope we live into. Are we, too, living in a whole new time? Is our life together not for us, but for everyone?! This old church, may be a little like Elizabeth – too old to be pregnant with a whole new life. Our skin doesn’t stretch so well anymore, our knees, the foundation stones, are achy and sometimes a little bit insecure. But even here, true aliveness is being born. Like Elizabeth, may we be filled with hope, the assurance of the promise, living on the edge of what others call outrageous, and what we call possible – because of who we know – the Creator of the Universe, the Giver of Grace, the One who loves us without end. Possible. Mary’s song was so full of the possible, that she sang it all as already done, accomplished. God is doing a new thing among us. Let that hope take root among us as we lean into what is being born among us.