I have written here earlier about Zechariah in relation to Advent. A second model of faith to consider in this season is his wife, the unassuming Elizabeth. Her humble nature comes out in the question she presents rhetorically at Mary’s Visitation: “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43) In other words, who am I to be so honored? This was no false humility but the genuine virtue that enables someone to evaluate his or her own self in the light of the greatness of Almighty God. And so, it’s neither the extreme of breast-beating, self-deprecating insincerity nor that of a bloated ego out of touch with reality.
Because Elizabeth understands her own littleness (belonging to the long line of faithful anawim in the Hebrew Scriptures), she also understands who God is, both in Himself and for her personally. Even her name highlights this, for it means “God is faithful.”
Elizabeth bears this message within herself and thus knows intuitively that the Lord will not abandon her by leaving her barren. Like Hannah, she hopes against hope. And, in God’s good time, her fidelity to Fidelity Personified is rewarded with the conception of her son.
If we were to try to update the Elizabeth story for today, it would have to be noted that the absolute sovereignty of God meant so much to her and other true believers that artificial conception and artificial contraception alike would have been regarded as abhorrent. Why? Because they are manipulative of the divine Will, putting a creature in the role of the Creator.
Elizabeth understood that if the Lord had sworn, He would do it. Hence, confident trust.
Unlike her husband Zechariah the priest, Elizabeth is a person of such great faith that she reads God’s Will in the humdrum circumstances of daily life, with no need of special revelations. Ironically, Zechariah receives the message of the angel but still does not believe, while Elizabeth simply carries on with the tasks assigned to her by Divine Providence.
Of course, we always have people with us like both the husband and the wife. Some Catholics chase after every extraordinary manifestation of God’s presence they can find, in a frantic effort to make contact with the hidden God, who (they are unwilling to admit) must ultimately remain hidden – even in revelations – if He is to be and to remain the God of mystery and transcendence communicated to us in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.
Others, however, are content with encountering the Lord in “normal” and perhaps less exciting ways, like believers for two millennia: the Scriptures, the sacraments, the Magisterium, and yes, even the daily circumstances of our daily lives. These folks do not deny the possibility of private revelations, nor do they look down on those who seem to have an inordinate need for them, but they are merely content with living in the incomplete knowledge which is the lot of most of us here below, awaiting the full revelation of the glory to which we are called when the Lord shows Himself completely at the end of time.
Elizabeth’s brand of faith is contagious. Her infant son in the womb “catches” it, so that he “leap[s] for joy” (Lk 1:44) at the sound of Mary’s voice. It’s fascinating to reflect on this dialogue of salvation, which occurs between two unborn children – so much for “fetal tissue” or “products of conception.”
Rather, Almighty God begins His love affair with us from the first moment when He breathes His life into us at conception. But there’s another dimension to the contagion of Elizabeth’s faith; it is offered by Gabriel as a reason for Mary herself to believe: “And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Lk 1:36-37)
Yet another effect of faith is joy. Joy is manifested in a lovely way by the leaping child in Elizabeth’s womb. Joy, however, should not be confused with hilarity or a superficial form of transient happiness. On the contrary, joy is a state of being in which a person rests comfortable and assured of God’s power and will to save. Thus one can still be joyful after an earthquake, upon learning of one’s diagnosis as terminally ill, or amidst financial ruin.
As St. Paul, would later put it:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35-39)
Joy enabled Mary (like all the other great women of faith – Sarah, Hannah, Ruth – in the Hebrew Tradition) to see through the darkness of her unplanned pregnancy, beyond the ignominy of Calvary, to the glory of Christ’s resurrection and her own assumption. Joy gives people the ability to view temporal affairs sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”). Modern man is short on joy because he is short on faith.
What the angel begins in saluting Mary, Elizabeth continues, for Heaven’s work must be completed on earth, just as earth’s work is fulfilled in Heaven. So, Gabriel’s greeting of Mary as the one who is “full of grace” is implicitly acknowledged by Elizabeth who declares that Our Lady is “blessed among women,” as the fruit of her womb, Jesus, is likewise blessed.
And what Elizabeth said, the Church has repeated ever since. The Blessed Mother under the influence of the Holy Spirit had declared in her Magnificat (used at Vespers or Evening Prayer each day) that this would happen: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” (Lk 1:48). In point of fact, her entire canticle of praise is merely the continuation of the cycle of faith and joy, which had its origins in Elizabeth.
Indeed, the songs inspired by her faith (the Benedictus and Magnificat) are the very hinges of the Church’s sacrifice of praise offered each day in the Liturgy of the Hours, that prayer which springs from faith and gives birth to joy.
God’s promise to Elizabeth was just part of the much larger promise to Mary fulfilled in Bethlehem, which is our hope for entry one day into the Heavenly Jerusalem.
*Image: The Visitation by an unknown artist (French or Northern Italian), c. 1630 [National Gallery, London]
You may also enjoy:
Michael Pakaluk’s Building Our Houses on Rock
Elizabeth A. Mitchell’s Waiting for God’s Best