Tag Archives: Saint Elizabeth

24 June: A planned pregnancy?

Convent of the Visitation, Israel, NAIB.

Was Elizabeth’s pregnancy planned? The idea of an old couple, an old childless couple, planning a pregnancy sounds crazy, but of course it was not their idea, Someone Else had planned it, they had to make His plan their own.

Zachary’s mutism was perhaps a gift, not a punishment; time to reflect, writing the essentials on a clay tablet, time for patience. Did he need nine months of patience after all those years of waiting, of prayer, of resignation? Perhaps he did. This time he had the promise visibly being fulfilled in Elizabeth’s swelling womb; she herself was filled with joyful acceptance and sang when her cousin appeared, complete with her own unlooked-for but now expected little one.

Zachary it was who had the task of telling everyone the name of his son: his loss of speech seems to have led his neighbours to believe he had lost his mind as well. John was certainly a gift for his parents, but also a gift for the people of Israel.  But caring for his parents in old age? No: the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel. (Luke 2.80)

God used Angels to take the Good News of John and Jesus to their parents, parents who were together and who loved and supported each other. But sometimes pregnancy can seem like a disaster, not a gift. I’d like to share these words of Susannah Black which are from the transcript of a discussion with Paul Mommsen and Zito Madu at The PloughCast. Ms Black is exploring some of what being pro-life means, and trying to get away from the discussion being focused on the right of the mother versus the right of the unborn.

Tap on the link for the full transcript.

One of the transformations of ways that I’ve gone about being pro-life has been to move from a discussion of the right to life, away from that and away from a rights-based discussion to just like, “What is the good here? Is there a good in the existence of human beings? Is there a good in a human baby however and wherever, whether or not that baby was planned and is that a good that we can do our best to make room for?”

It’s not about whether or not abortion should be legal, it’s about what it means to be a woman who has a body that can carry children, what it means to find yourself pregnant, what it means to find something happening in your life that you did not plan, and what it means to honor that gift even if it’s a really difficult gift to honor.

I guess one of the things that I am committed to as a pro-life person, is doing my best to, as a woman and as a friend and politically as well, making it easier for women to experience, even unexpected pregnancies as something that they can say yes to, and as something that they can experience as gifts.

Susannah Black

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10 December, Relics XXIX: Our Lady of Loreto

I wonder about this feast. This site is more than respectful of relics but angels carrying a house from Palestine to Italy? That does not move me to prayer.

Even, dare I say it, the chapel of the Portiuncula, where Saint Francis died, seemed lost in the basilica erected over and around it, and did not call me to my knees. Maybe I’d never make a Franciscan, and this site is more than respectful of Franciscans. And of Saint Francis.

It’s not just saints’ places that we value, and not just Christians that troop around palaces, or Gilbert White’s rectory, or the home of a teenaged Beatle to be, or even Dylan Thomas’s writing place overlooking the Estuary in Laugharne, as shown below. We may not touch the exhibits or sit on the chair but we breathe in the air, sort of.

I doubt the authenticity of the site at the top of this blog, the reputed house of the Visitation, where Elizabeth welcomed Mary, who had come to be a home-help for her pregnant cousin. But the shrine is a reminder that this story is about two flesh and blood women and their flesh and blood sons. The statues show them about to burst into song and dance, which they surely did: Luke 1: 39-56 is almost all poetry and song.

So today, let’s celebrate two real women who lived in real houses and raised real families. And may we heed Elizabeth’s son’s call to prepare the way for Mary’s son, however strange a Christmas we might be expecting.

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December 20. Zechariah, an unlikely Advent Star, VII.

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Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and were surprised that he stayed in the sanctuary so long. When he came out he could not speak to them, and they realised that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. But he could only make signs to them and remained dumb (1:21-23).

I can imagine Zechariah staying in the sanctuary long after Gabriel had left him, and then slowly, reluctantly leaving. I imagine the reaction of the people to this long absence of his when he at last emerged. They were not prepared for this new Zechariah – for Zechariah the visionary. Undoubtedly, there were questions for Zechariah. He answers with signs, but maybe they don’t get it at first. Maybe they were impatient with him; possibly there was some teasing before the more perceptive ones among the people noticed Zechariah’s changed countenance and told the jokers to shush.

Zechariah was a man whose vision of reality had not prepared him for the vision he saw in the temple that day. Yet, he had stellar qualities that I would like to have. He was deep, stable, faithful, humble, loyal and prayerful. When the Archangel Gabriel announced a new reality to him that day in the sanctuary, and gave Zechariah the grace of silence within which to ponder this complete reordering of his existence, he acquiesced. And months later, when his eight day old son was circumcised, he was able to affirm his full concurrence with the angel’s message by writing the name that Gabriel had told him call his son: John – much to the amazement of all who where there. And so, he then regained the power of speech. He had used his silence well, and through it had grown and changed, and had come to a full acceptance of Gabriel’s message. (cf. 1: 59-66).

God works that way sometimes. He sometimes does something enormous in our lives and does not always seem to prepare us for it beforehand. He throws us in the deep waters. We may feel frantic. When he works in this way with us, we can only rely on him to give us gradually the understanding we need.

Every Advent is an opportunity to become like Zechariah, to encounter Gabriel in the Holy Scriptures, to hear him saying something that, even now, is hard, very hard, to grasp as fully as it deserves. We know that we each have a role to play in salvation history. We will not be bearing John, no. But as we each bear the unique gift that our personal faith brings to God’s people we can say, as Elizabeth did when she conceived, “The Lord has done this for me” (1:25). And we can pray during this season of Advent for the grace of silence to ponder the Word of the angel who stands in God’s presence.

SJC

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, photo by NAIB.

 

 

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December 16. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: IV.

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Your son will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him (1:14-17).

Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a child. A child will be born to them, says the angel, but such a child as they could not possibly have imagined. The angel declares that their son will be “great in the sight of the Lord… in the spirit and power of Elijah. Their son will have a mission for all Israel: to bring them back to their God, to prepare for the Lord a people fit for him (cf. 1: 12-17).

This angelic utterance is really a rather long one, containing information that can only have been completely mind-boggling for Zechariah. Perhaps readers of this post have heard this story many times, and through familiarity have lost the sense of its being beyond fathoming – this prophecy from the mouth of a powerful and numinous being. Certainly for Zechariah, it is all too big to absorb. At first he is silent while the angel delivers his astonishing message.

When Zechariah does find power of speech, he comes out with the words that have earned him such criticism through the centuries: “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18). I rather doubt I’d have performed any better than Zechariah, and would probably have done far worse, but note well: this was an angel, after all, and angels generally know what they are talking about. Zechariah, however, seems to think that the angel might not realise how old he and his wife are. Even with my bias in favour of Zechariah, I must confess that I can’t help smiling here. It is almost as though he is asking the angel to check his divine instructions and make sure he has not come to the wrong temple and spoken to the wrong man.

So, what do we see here? Zechariah blurts out a question that is pretty daft in the circumstances. But is he really so bad after all? His question shows at least that he is a stable character, not easily diverted from the path of righteousness. And it has already been established that Zechariah is a good and upright man in the sight of God. He is not someone to curry the favour of men (or angels), or to give his consent, even to an angel, without deep conviction of heart. He is a man of depth. He wants to understand what is happening, but he is out of his depth now. He is used to having his prayer unanswered, we know. But he is not used to that same prayer now being answered.

SJC

John baptising Jesus – Zakopane Basilica of the Holy Family, Poland.

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December 13. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: I.

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The story of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, and his encounter with the archangel Gabriel, has been an important one in the Church’s Advent liturgy. Every year we hear St. Luke’s narrative (1:5-25) on December 19th at Mass, one of those privileged days in the final week before the great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

To be honest, I have often felt a bit sorry for Zechariah. First, his outstanding personality and goodness is mostly eclipsed by his extraordinary son, John. We tend to forget about Zechariah. Then, when Zechariah does figure in sermons, he is often portrayed as the perfect example of how not to act when one is vouchsafed an angelic visitation. He is usually contrasted with Our Lady, who also received an angelic visitation, and who is perfect. Now, I have no problem with Our Lady being perfect. She is. But I contend that Zechariah, although not perfect, is a loveable and heroic man, and should be given credit for getting quite a lot of important things right. I have found that he can be a good companion to have during the season of Advent.

Zechariah’s story comes at the beginning of St. Luke’s gospel in chapter one (all biblical texts in these posts are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible).

In the days of King Herod of Judaea there lived a priest called Zechariah who belonged to the Abijah section of the priesthood, and he had a wife, Elizabeth by name, who was a descendant of Aaron. Both were upright in the sight of God and impeccably carried out all the commandments and observances of the Lord. But they were childless. Elizabeth was barren and they were both advanced in years (1:5-7).

The first thing I notice here is that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are ‘upright in the sight of God.’ To my knowledge, it is a rare thing in the bible to be described as upright in the sight of God. As I linger over this phrase and repeat it slowly to myself, a picture begins to form in my mind of a married couple who pray together every day, who are united both spiritually and physically, and who strive to discern God’s will together. Moreover, we learn from St. Luke that Zechariah and his wife ‘impeccably carried out all the commandments and observances of the Lord.’ Impeccably is a strong word. Who among us can be described in this way with regard to all God’s commands? On the contrary, it is so easy to think, ‘Oh, the Lord didn’t mean me to do that all the time. Surely, I can let myself off this or that practice today. He’ll understand.’ Yet, St. Luke implies that neither Zechariah nor his wife thought in such terms. This is made more impressive by the fact that they were “advanced in years.” Their integrity is not, therefore, a case of the neophyte’s fervour: Zechariah and Elizabeth are an example of long-term, day in and day out faithfulness. They are a holy couple.

Yet, they are childless. This, as verse twenty-five will indicate, was a very deep humiliation for both of them. Barrenness was a cause of shame at that time, and was even seen as God’s punishment. But, what had they done? They were upright in the sight of God; they were innocent, faithful and devout. Yet, their prayers for a child had been unanswered and now it was too late. They are too old.

Perhaps many of us can relate to this. We know that we are not perfect, but at the same time, something painful is happening or has happened to us that we know we do not deserve. What do we do? How do we deal with this? It can be helpful to draw near in prayer to this holy couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who had been enduring something painful and humiliating for a very long time. They do not turn away from God in anger. They accept their childlessness, and the unanswered questions they surely had, and they continue faithfully in their life with God, day by day, carrying out his will as they understood it. They are upright in the sight of God. Perhaps they became so precisely through their prayerful acceptance of a sorrow they could not understand.

SJC

Walking together through the desert – Zechariah and Elizabeth.

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12 December. Zechariah, an Unlikely Advent Star: Preface on Lectio Divina.

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It is always good to hear from Sister Johanna at Minster Abbey. Today she introduces her Advent reflections on Zechariah (or Zachary) by explaining how they came to her. She was reading the Gospel story of how John the Baptist came to be born to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth when a very human and likeable figure emerged.

Lectio Divina

Lectio divina is a rather fancy Latin term that may not be known to every reader of these posts. It means ‘sacred reading’, or ‘holy reading’ and refers to the practice of slowly and prayerfully reading the bible. For a Benedictine nun or monk, lectio is a daily exercise, lasting anywhere from one to two hours, and it is a wonderful experience. But lectio is not merely a pious exercise for monks and nuns. If you take your spiritual life seriously and wish to grow closer to God, try to set aside a period of time each day for this beautiful practice. Busy people may not have time for a full hour or two, but even a daily habit of fifteen minutes can be full of grace.

If you have never tried it, lectio may seem strange at first. Reading the bible is not like reading any other book. You are not trying to ‘find out what happens next’, or quickly reach the end. You are reading a bit like a child eats an ice-cream cone: you try to make it last, and to savour each line like the child savours each lick.

Soon, the reader finds that lectio divina yields a harvest of rich meditations. This in turn leads to deeper prayer, as the Holy Spirit gives the reader new insights, which can be deeply personal ones that shed light on the way God is working in the reader’s life. I have found that writing down my lectio meditations helps them along. As I write, more insights come. The following posts are based on the meditations I have had when using the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke for my lectio.

Reading can be a window looking beyond ourselves. Zakopane. Poland.

 

 

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* 25/12 Christ’s Nativity

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Philadelphia Museum of Art

In William Blake’s The Nativity, a tiny Christ appears leaping in a blast of light, outshining the paler light of the star of the Nativity outside (both are cruciform, thus strengthening the comparison), as the embodiment of vital, illuminating energy. He is leaping away from his mother, who swoons into Joseph’s arms, and towards the outstretched arms of Elizabeth who kneels opposite with John the Baptist in her lap.

Christ is often depicted as the source of light in images of the Nativity, but Blake’s idea of Christ as a leaping blaze is apparently unprecedented, breaking with the convention of depicting figures grouped adoringly around the infant.

The association of the advent of Christ with light here reflects the Johannine Prologue (the Gospel appointed for Christmas Daytime Mass in the Roman Lectionary) which refers to the coming of ‘the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’ (John 1:9). It is the Baptist who bears witness to the Light (John 1:7-8), which could have influenced the inclusion of John and Elizabeth here.

NAIB, adapted by WT

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