There was a priest named Zechariah; his wife was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in the eyes of God. But they had no child because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. Once when he was serving as priest, the angel of the Lord appeared to him. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you shall name him John. He will be great in the sight of God. He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.”
Zechariah asked, “How shall I know this?” And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel. I was sent to speak to you and announce this good news.”
– Luke 1:5-18 (paraphrased)
I think the hardest but often most rewarding parts of life occur during those times when we are waiting to see. We wait at election times to see who will be victorious. We wait with bated breath for the calling of bingo numbers or the falling of lottery balls. Who won? Mostly, we wait for birth—to be born and born again. Even with modern medicine’s ultrasound and its pre-birth gender pronouncement, families are not content with an electronic snapshot. They wait with anticipation to see the baby in person, alive and kicking, scrunching up an infantile face with the first cries of a life already mixed with joy and pain.
There have been many occasions in my life when I, like the biblical Zechariah and Elizabeth or Abraham and Sarah, have felt that my righteousness before God resulted in barrenness. Though I loved my church, wanting to serve it well and empower its and my own transformation, all efforts I expended seemed futile, even wasted. Whenever I questioned the status quo or asked for alternative suggestions, I was cast as a never-satisfied complainer. Sometimes the term used was “rabble-rouser.”
Though it was never intended, there was a certain insidious intransigence that plagued my church and me. There was an invisible line in the sand that served as a reason to concretize our differences. Perhaps neither I nor they stopped to question whether we were truly hearing God’s voice. Perhaps we were so involved in our own righteousness that we stopped listening for God in the events and experiences of our lives, personal and ecclesial. I’ll not unravel that quandary in my lifetime. The fact is that I became entangled in the web of mystery that is woven when we wait to see. As happened with our scriptural ancestors, I was troubled by what I saw and heard and became afraid. My fear interfered with my faith to the degree that, hearing God, I could not listen to God. God’s voice was deafeningly clear—and I was rendered dumb and numb before it.
It was not that I no longer spoke at all. I continued to speak, but now fearfully and cautiously, with carefully couched words. God’s truth, as I heard it, was lost in my deliberate speech. God’s word foundered in my multitudinous ones.
But the story does not end here. There is the “Elizabeth factor.” Somehow, in the bountiful graciousness of divinity, life was conceived in the barrenness of that womb of words. Any seclusion I had entered for self-preservation was not to be made permanent nor to end in empty futility. Any disgrace I had previously felt or endured, as well as those yet to come, would be removed—not because I deserved or needed it, but because God cares for me. God cares for each and all of us. Mostly, God so wishes us to bear and give birth to life. Ultimately nothing will be allowed to arrest this process.
Zechariah’s silence did not impede his son John’s prophetic speech. Elizabeth’s seclusion did not stop her virgin cousin Mary’s visitation. As both women shared the potent but painful blessings they had received, they listened for God speaking in each of them. Life leaped within them and danced about them. Silence and solitude splintered into sound. Blessedness was revealed. The beatitude of true happiness was uncovered. “Most blessed are you . . . and blessed is the fruit of your womb . . . blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:42-45).
So, here I am, and here you are. In this time and place far from ancient Judea, we sit in our unique temples, enjoying and being empowered by the stillness that allows us to know God. Struck dumb by the magnitude of that reality, we seek seclusion to ponder its wonder. And then, going in haste to those hill countries where promises are both kept and hidden, we give ourselves time to visit with each other, to marvel at the blessedness we are and the gifts we have been given. We enter into the intimacy of each other’s houses, going to spiritual depths never before attempted, and we leap for joy because we find God where we had expected only goodness.
We taste the piquant flavor of being handmaids whose lowliness has been looked upon and blessed, not overlooked and blamed. We begin to recognize that it is the Mighty One who has done great things for us. Now we can truly claim the holiness of God’s name. In awe, we know that God’s mercy will prevail from age to age, no matter how desperate or frustrating the times may be. Injustice will not last. Violence will be overcome. Vengeance will melt in the heat of virtue. With trust, we go forth—still lowly in the eyes of those who will not see, still hungry in the face of richness yet unshared. We go forth with hope, as followers and believers.
Despite our limitations, we do not seek escape from life’s unresolved questions and unmitigated mystery. Nor do we command a facile closure that would diminish the dilemma and damage discipleship. Instead, we remain for a while in the comfort of companionship to wait and see. When the vision comes and the appropriate time for challenge arrives, we return home to the “ordinariness” of life. There it is that we will labor and give birth to glory. We will praise God for all we have heard and seen. There, with trembling hearts, we truly believe that our prayers have been heard. The hand of God is upon us. We are great in the sight of God.
Life quickens, as we wait to see. ♦
Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, from which this selection is taken. She is also a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.