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Readings: 21 December 2012 - 4th Sunday of Advent

14 December 2012

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4th Sunday of Advent

Micah 5.2-5a; Hebrews 10.5-10; Luke 1.39-45 [46-55]

God our redeemer, who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son: grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour, so we may be ready to greet him when he comes again as our judge; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

ELIZABETH appears to have a bit-part in Mary's story, but what happens if we put her centre-stage?

This descendant of Aaron the priest had an impeccable past, but no future, because she had no child. Childlessness was the woman's fault: "they had no children because Elizabeth was barren" (Luke 1.7); and, worse, her husband was a priest; so her childlessness called his piety into doubt, since sons were a sign of God's blessing. Every time he came home from a circumcision, every time there was a family gathering, the grief must have been there, the tears welling up in secret.

Nevertheless, Luke emphasises their blameless living and righteousness before God. Their lives were a perpetual paradox, because they had done everything that God commanded, and yet God had not blessed them in the way all faithful Jews expected. Instead, Elizabeth's dreams had been chipped away, month by month, as she felt her blood flow, until hope was gone.

But then something happened. An angel appeared, and told Zechariah: "Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth will have a son" (Luke 1.13). When had that elderly couple last prayed that prayer? Realistically, it was years ago, and God had indeed heard, yet had chosen not to answer until now.

So pregnant Elizabeth hid herself, with telling words: "This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people" (Luke 1.25). We can hear the years of silent suffering and shame that she had borne.

Six months later, on Mary's unexpected arrival and news, her baby kicked off the celebrations, and Elizabeth broke her seclusion with a loud cry of praise. The neighbours heard! She, long disgraced for not being pregnant, strengthened Mary, newly disgraced for being pregnant, and facing the possibility of Joseph's rejection, her father's wrath, perhaps stoning.

Elizabeth became a prophet filled with the Holy Spirit, telling Mary that her child was indeed the Lord. That may have been the assurance that Mary desperately needed that she had not dreamed it all.

Elizabeth, who had experienced blessing from God in the conception of her child, was open to an excess of blessing, as the mother of her Lord came to her. Were her words "Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord" spoken to Mary, or to herself? Was there a chuckle in her voice, a delighted realisation that, after all these years, God had kept his word?

When John was born, "her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her" (Luke 1.58). Was mercy the unexpected, deeper gift of God, after those years of tenacious, faithful living, in the face of silence? Indeed, what does it mean to receive the great mercy of God? Perhaps it was Elizabeth who taught Mary that "God's mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation."

As Advent draws to a close, we pray for readiness to greet our saviour when he comes. Elizabeth was open to receiving God's mercy, after years of dashed hopes. Sometimes, as a survival mechanism, we are so defended against disillusionment ("better not to ask than ask and be disappointed") that God has to prise or even wrench us open to his great mercy.

Perhaps, in these last days of Advent, it is time to revisit, prayerfully, what we dare not voice or have given up praying for, and to risk that God will come with mercy, making a road in our wilderness, in the wilderness of our neighbourhood, and of our nation.

 

Faithful Elizabeth,

long have you waited for this sign.

 

Now is your time of mercy -

your time! -

no longer sharer of another's joy.

 

Can you receive - in awe, yet without fear -

not just this child,

but mercy, in your hidden depths,

and in that place of faithful, steady love

let mercy purge and heal your pain,

risk the disarming of the strength

that kept you faithful through the years?

Then, beloved and vulnerable,

embrace the lover of your soul.

 

Mercy, Elizabeth, mercy for you.

Not just a son, but joy, great joy.

The Revd Rosalind Brown is Canon Librarian of Durham Cathedral.

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