Elizabeth was old. So was her husband, Zechariah. Thankfully, though, they led a comfortable life. He was a priest, after all – an important one. So important in fact that, on a very special day on the Jewish calendar, he was the one chosen to enter the holiest place in the Temple.
It was on that special day that Zechariah was told by an angel that his wife – who was well beyond child-bearing years – would, like father Abraham’s beloved, bear a child. He didn’t believe it, though, and the angel bearing this message struck him mute for his lack of faith.
Still, you can’t help sympathizing with him. So many of us try and try and try for years, until we finally give up on something. “It’s impossible,” we tell ourselves. But there, a year later, was little John the Baptist bouncing on his rickety knees.
You can imagine the joy they must have felt, experiencing this bright new life in their old age…. just as you can imagine the sorrow they must have felt waiting for him. What struck me most this time around, reading the story again, was Elizabeth’s comment as she went into seclusion 5 months pregnant. The text says that as she hid, she said to herself (and perhaps to other close friends and relatives), “So has the Lord done for me at a time when He has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”
Goodness, in that statement is everything you need to know about how a woman who can’t bear children felt in that culture: a disgrace. It sounds so harsh – a harsh thing to say to herself, and a harsh thing for the neighbors to be gossiping about her. Maybe her state in life was a misfortune, depending on how you look at it – a sad circumstance of events. But a disgrace?
It’s tempting to judge the times they were living in: as though a woman couldn’t have value unless she bore children. Certainly the Catholic Church doesn’t see women that way. But we dare not judge too harshly. Our own culture is full of these little and big “disgraces” as well – these lots in life we know are not anyone’s fault, but still mark us in our culture like a scarlet “A” on our chests or a star of David on our sleeves.
The child goes to school wearing what is not the latest in fashion. Disgrace. The other kids make fun of him for not looking like everyone else.
The child with Down syndrome is born to the happy young couple. Disgrace. “So sad they didn’t screen for that sort of thing when it was still legal for them to get an abortion.”
The man works for years at his business, only barely breaking even while his colleagues leap past him. The rape victim decides to keep her baby. The depressed person checks himself into a psychiatric ward, finally admitting he can’t deal with his demons alone. The gay teenager tries to work through his feelings in his conservative community. Disgrace, disgrace, disgrace.
The Christian answer is to say, “Hold it! It is not a disgrace!” And that’s true! Of course it isn’t. And Elizabeth probably knew as much. It is only a disgrace “before others”, she says, not before God. Certainly not before herself. But it’s not perfect either, is it? Elizabeth wanted a baby, and no doubt, they tried for years to have one. No one likes to be poor. No one wants to have a disability. No one asks for the extra burdens they have in life.
And I know the good Catholic answer: we need those burdens. God cursed Adam and Eve with toil and pain for their sin – not simply to punish them, but to ultimately show them mercy and help them grow. But just the same, no matter how beneficial suffering can be in our lives, the ancient writers still called our condition a “curse.” Jesus Himself “became a curse” for us on the Cross, and it saved us; but it is still right to mourn the fact that he had to become a curse in the first place. What we celebrate on Good Friday isn’t the “joy of suffering”. We celebrate the victory we achieve through it.
It is all right to mourn in your own Garden of Gethsemane. It is all right to wish things could be different – to ask that the cup you have been given to drink pass from you. Our pain is not the end of our stories. It says in the Bible that God will one day wipe every tear from our eyes. He will give us new, cancer-free bodies and dress us in the finest of clothes. We will have a treasure that is priceless and eternal. God wants to give us these things.
Maybe not now. Maybe not yet. But one day, we will say with Elizabeth, “At a time when He has seen fit, the Lord has taken away my disgrace.”