“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.” Luke 1:5-7
It usually helps to start a story at the beginning. And in this, the most tumultuous of all holiday seasons, where many run to and fro searching for and attempting to proclaim the “reason for the season” and “put Christ back in Christmas” while society plunges headlong into the festivities, our story needs a strong starting point.
Elizabeth was barren.
You don’t hear much about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. She does not seem to be a central player in the grand tale of Christmas. And, in a season of hope and joy and birth, why would we leave much room for an old lady with no kids? But the good doctor Luke leads his narrative with our gal Elizabeth. And yes she ultimately gave birth to John the Baptist, which cements her place in Biblical history, but there is more to her than meets the eye.
You see, Elizabeth was barren.
In her culture then, and, quite frankly, in our culture today, being unable to conceive a child was considered a poor fate. Hence the word barren – not a pretty word and derived, in the Greek, from a word meaning “stiff and unnatural” before becoming the word for a woman without child. So Elizabeth was unable to do the one thing she needed to be fulfilled as a woman. And yet the text clearly tells us that she, along with her husband Zacharias, had a lot of things to be glad for in life. He was a pillar of society, a priest. They both were upright, with strong moral character and a zeal for their shared faith. In Jewish culture it is doubtful you could find yourself in a better position. Their station in life would have provided them with a comfortable living, food on the table, respect in their city.
And that is precisely why the Christmas story starts with Elizabeth. No matter where we think we are, what we have attained, how full our lives may seem to be, it is barrenness that is the reason for the season. Elizabeth had it all, but knew she needed much more. Even with everything life can be empty of meaning, devoid of purpose, pointless in direction. And ultimately Elizabeth conceived and gave birth. And her son John was destined to spend his days in a stark barren existence until he came out of the wilderness to proclaim the advent of Jesus’ adult ministry as “one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight… and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”
Because Elizabeth’s son John knew we are all barren.
We all approach this time of year from different places. To some it is a season of great joy and celebration, the month bringing a series of traditions and events designed to mark the birth of a man over 2,000 years ago. To others it is a time of great festivities, trees and lights and presents and office parties and year-end bonuses. To still others it is just another period of time as the calendar pages flip by. And many roll all the above into a mish-mash of something that just makes you feel good – the very antithesis of barren, actually. Peace and good will for men as we kick a couple of bucks into the kettle and sway to the strains of White Christmas.
But consider a new outlook. Let’s be barren – empty, “stiff and unnatural” – to kick off our Christmas season. How about a time of reflection, not of what we have (or think we have) but of what we lack. What we could be, opportunities missed, things we wish we could do over. Things we wish we could erase. Elizabeth was barren and we are barren. And that is why the story starts here – to get to the top, we have to start at the bottom. And to get filled with great tidings of joy we have to first be emptied.
Of course, the story doesn’t end barren and hopeless. And I won’t leave you there. But we have all week. As we uncover some of the characters in this tale – Zacharias, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, Jesus himself – let’s remember that there is a point to this grandest of events, and everyone has a perspective and an opinion and a thought on the whole matter. And while there is nothing wrong with your festivities and traditions and chestnuts roasting and sleigh bells ringing we will do well to establish a beginning of barren humility for our story to develop to its glorious conclusion in six days. Because there is a babe in the manger coming and all the hope and promise and joy that comes with it.
But in the beginning, Elizabeth was barren.