Many years ago, I became a semi-official caregiver to two elderly women named Grace and Helen. We were all members of Epworth United Methodist Church. They lived together at Swan Creek Retirement Center until Helen fell and broke her hip. Because of her increasing dementia, there was no nursing care room suitable for her at Swan Creek, so she was moved to another facility. Helen and Grace were separated for the first time in more than fifty years.
Grace didn’t drive anymore, so I regularly took her to see Helen. One day, as I was preparing to take her for a visit, my daughter Peyton asked me if she could come along and bring Hershey. Hershey was her brand-new guinea pig, and Peyton was certain that Helen would love to see Hershey. So, we bundled Hershey and her cage into the car with us.
We arrived at Swan Creek, and Grace was waiting—with a friend. Grace explained that Jane had dropped by and wanted to go with us. So, Jane, and Grace, and Grace’s walker, and Hershey, and Hershey’s cage, and Peyton, and I all squeezed into the car for the trip to Helen’s.
At Helen’s nursing home, we sat together in a little sitting room. Helen was just as delighted to see Hershey as Peyton had anticipated. She sat next to Peyton, stroking Hershey’s soft fur, while Peyton explained all the things Helen probably never wanted to know about guinea pigs.
When Peyton paused, Jane looked at Peyton and said, “Peyton, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Peyton beamed and said, “I want to be a vet! I want to go to school and learn all about animals. I’m already reading books about them! I want to be able to take care of them when they’re sick! And I want to help people know how to keep their pets healthy! That’s what I’m going to be: a vet!” Jane listened, then sat back, crossed her arms, and said, “Well, that’s what you want now, but you’ll probably end up doing something else.”
Peyton was like a balloon that had suddenly lost all its air. The joy drained from her face. The sparkle disappeared from her eyes, and she sat a little lower in her seat. Then, Helen said quietly, “I don’t know about that. I think Peyton knows what she wants, and I think she’ll do it.” You could almost see Helen’s words fill Peyton up again, as her eyes regained their sparkle and her smile returned.
In our Advent study, Adam Hamilton notes that Joseph is an overlooked character in the nativity story. But Elizabeth is also overlooked, and I think Elizabeth, like Helen, has a great deal to teach us about the relationships between young and old, and how much we need people in our lives who believe in us and in what God has called us to do and to be.
Luke tells us that Elizabeth was from a priestly family—the family of Aaron. She had done what was expected of the daughter of a priest: she married a priest, named Zechariah. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah are described as righteous and blameless; they had faithfully observed the requirements of the covenant between God and Israel. But, in spite of their faithfulness and their prayers, they had remained childless. Elizabeth was past the age of child-bearing, and Zechariah was no spring chicken either.
But a miracle happened to this faithful couple. As Zechariah was taking his turn at the most coveted role in the Temple—one that most priests only got to do once in a lifetime, an angel appeared to him. And the angel made an astonishing announcement: Elizabeth would bear a son. His name would be John, and he would be the one to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming into the world.
Sure enough, Elizabeth became pregnant. Luke tells us that she remained in seclusion for the first five months of her pregnancy. For those who have grown up in the age of social media, this may seem rather bizarre since, now, pregnancies are often announced the minute a pregnancy test turns out positive. But there could be several reasons that Elizabeth might have wanted to keep her pregnancy quiet. She was older, after all, and, even though this baby and his mission had been announced by an angel, Elizabeth may have worried about whether she could carry the baby to term. She may have feared that people would make snide remarks about her and her husband for having a baby at their ages. Maybe, she wanted some time alone to think through the implications of what the angel had said about her baby’s future. Whatever the reason, her seclusion had the result of keeping her pregnancy a secret from Mary until the angel Gabriel announced it to her—a sign to Mary that her own seemingly impossible pregnancy was, like Elizabeth’s, possible.
After hearing the angel’s announcement and agreeing to play her part in God’s redemptive plan for the world, Mary went to visit Elizabeth. We don’t know if Mary had told Joseph of her pregnancy yet. If she hadn’t, maybe she needed some time to prepare for the conversation—or confrontation—they would have to have. If she had told him, perhaps she wanted to give him some space while he decided what to do. In any event, maybe she wanted to avoid the curious and perhaps judgmental stares of people who would be ignorant of the true circumstances around her pregnancy. Maybe, in the midst of this holy and yet disturbing turn of events, she just needed the company and wisdom and support of an older woman.
And support is exactly what she got from the moment she entered Elizabeth’s home. Before Elizabeth even saw Mary, at the sound of Mary’s greeting, the baby John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. What the Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth in that instant was reflected in her words to Mary: “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? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
In her words, we hear Elizabeth offer Mary three great gifts: the gifts of confirmation, of association, and of validation. First, Elizabeth offers the gift of confirmation. She confirms the truth of what the angel said to Mary. Mary’s baby is indeed the Son of God, the Lord. In our Advent study group this week, we talked about whether Joseph might have wondered if his dream was truly divine revelation or if it was just the product of all the thoughts and worries that were swirling around in his head. Don’t you suppose that it’s likely that Mary had some of those same doubts? Had she really seen an angel? And did the angel really say what she thought he had said? Not only was a virginal conception pretty unbelievable, but why on earth would God choose her—a nobody in the world? Her doubts must have lain alongside her conviction, like twin babies in a shared cradle.
But Elizabeth dispels the doubts that Mary may have had. With no prior human knowledge of what had happened to Mary, Elizabeth identified her as the mother of Elizabeth’s Lord. Elizabeth gives Mary the gift of confirmation, that she would bear the Son of the Most High, the heir of David’s throne, the ruler over an eternal kingdom.
The second gift Elizabeth offers Mary is association. An unmarried, pregnant girl was a scandal. Mary’s pregnancy would not have been seen as the result of a mistake but the result of adultery. And the penalty for adultery was shame at best and death by stoning at worst. No one would have wanted to associate with such a woman. But Elizabeth was not afraid to be associated with Mary. She took Mary into her home, and Mary was no longer alone in her situation. She had a companion. She had a friend and mentor. As a practical matter, she had someone to teach her what she needed to know about how to deal with morning sickness, and what to eat so her baby would be healthy, and how to accept and anticipate the changes in her body. But, more importantly, Mary’s miraculous pregnancy was no longer a burden she had to bear alone, because Elizabeth offered her the gift of association.
Finally, Elizabeth offered Mary the gift of validation. She went beyond simply confirming what Mary already knew. She put a stamp of approval on Mary’s decision to trust God’s promises and to bear this child. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” Elizabeth says. Not only did Mary make the right choice, she would be blessed by it. And, Mary might have recognized that Elizabeth was validating Mary’s experience by likening it to her own. Both women had believed. Both women had trusted. Both would be blessed.
I’ve heard the passage which we read as our call to worship—what’s called “the Magnificat” or “Mary’s Song of Praise”—dozens of times. But as I reflected on our story for this week, I realized that I have been mentally misplacing it for years. I’ve always thought of it as Mary’s response to the angel’s words. But in reality, it is Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s words. It’s only after Elizabeth confirms what has happened to Mary that Mary can sing triumphantly about what her child will be. It is Elizabeth’s gift of association that frees Mary to confidently claim what God has done for her. And it is only after Elizabeth’s validation of Mary’s faith that Mary is able to not merely accept God’s call on her life but to embrace it with joy.
Our world—the world Jesus was sent to save—is full of young people who are grappling with hard questions and difficult situations in their own lives. Some may be heart-wrenching and dramatic. How will I feed and house myself and my child if I can’t find work? How can I overcome my addiction or be healed of my illness? Where can I find someone to love me when my family doesn’t? How can I move past the traumas I’ve experienced so that I can live a full and happy life?
But most young people face the expected but still challenging questions and problems of simply living in a complicated time and troubled world. Who am I, and what face do I want to present to the world? How do I know whom to trust? What is my purpose in life, and how can I achieve it? Does my life really matter?
Whatever situations they are confronting, younger people in the world can benefit from the gifts of experience and wisdom that older people have to offer. No matter what age we are, there is someone younger than us who can benefit from what we have learned. No matter our age, each one of us can welcome a younger person into, associating with them as Elizabeth did with Mary. We can be alert to their gifts and attentive to their dreams, so that we can confirm them, as Elizabeth did for Mary. And, we can assure them that they do matter, and that their hopes and dreams are worthy ones, validating them as Elizabeth did for Mary.
But we also see that the world is full of older people who have much to share, if only someone would seek them out, as Mary did with Elizabeth. They have life experiences to draw on–lessons learned, sometimes the hard way, that can help a younger person avoid some of life’s pitfalls. And, because over the course of their lives they have realized just how grace-filled and compassionate is the love Jesus offers them, they are ready to offer that same kind of grace-filled, compassionate love to others. There are a few exceptions among us, but no matter how old we are, there is probably someone older than ourselves whom we can seek out and invite into our lives.
Mary sought out Elizabeth when she was facing a difficult time in her life. Elizabeth responded by offering her confirmation, association, and validation. No matter what age we are, we can do the same. Seeing with the eyes of Elizabeth, we can seek out and treasure relationships with people older and younger than ourselves, and together, through our mutual encouragement, we can do what God has called us to do and be what God has called us to be. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young