I said goodbye, closed the front door, and crumbled to a heap. My friend had quietly driven over to gently tell me she was having her fifth baby. I’d been trying for years to have one baby. We were now at the stage when people whispered apologies when they were pregnant.
This is why I have a soft spot for the old barren couple who open the story of Advent.
During the time when Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife’s name was Elizabeth; she also belonged to a priestly family. They both lived good lives in God’s sight and obeyed fully all the Lord’s laws and commands. They had no children because Elizabeth could not have any, and she and Zechariah were both very old.” – Luke 1:5-7
Zechariah and Elizabeth were a ministry couple. They did everything right and yet somehow didn’t get to smell soft baby necks, play catch, or brag about grandchildren. They knew how to professionally pray and sacrifice, but still no baby.
During our years of infertility people often asked if I had tried praying for a baby. I got to practice a lot of self control not swearing or slapping them. One mother of four I barely knew called to declare I couldn’t get pregnant because of sin in my life. I can’t wait to see the jewel in my crown for how I handled that.
Of course I prayed for a baby. And I got tired, angry, and desperate. I begged God for signs. I moaned and stomped. I cried and hit the steering wheel asking God to just show up.
The Advent story begins with God showing up. Zechariah is at work in the temple when an angel surprises him and declares:
“God has heard your prayer, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. You are to name him John. How glad and happy you will be, and how happy many others will be when he is born! John will be great in the Lord’s sight.” – Luke 1:13-15
I love to imagine the angel’s excitement and Zechariah’s shock. I wish there was a youtube video. The angel continued:
He must not drink any wine or strong drink. From his very birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go ahead of the Lord, strong and mighty like the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; he will turn disobedient people back to the way of thinking of the righteous; he will get the Lord’s people ready for him. – Luke 1:15-17
This was everything a righteous priest and his wife could dream of. Not only a baby. A son. And not only a son. A priest. And not any priest. A powerful prophet like everyone’s favorite, Elijah.
But I’m betting Zechariah had been burned before. He’d go home to find Elizabeth knitting booties in the rocking chair one day, and then ripping out the stitches the next. I know what it’s like to whisper “I’m late” to my husband with a sparkly smile, and then take it back a few days later.
I don’t think Zechariah is being unreasonable when he finally stammers,
“How shall I know if this is so? I am an old man, and my wife is old also. – Luke 1:18
That small “if” (compared to Mary’s “how” in verse 34) is unacceptable, though. Zechariah is forced to think about it a long time:
“I am Gabriel,” the angel answered. “I stand in the presence of God, who sent me to speak to you and tell you this good news. But you have not believed my message, which will come true at the right time. Because you have not believed, you will be unable to speak; you will remain silent until the day my promise to you comes true.”- Luke 1:19-20
I hated these verses during my barrenness! I understood his need for a guarantee.
In our epic struggle with infertility we did every natural, unnatural, and scientific thing you could think of. Hundreds of people prayed, thousands of dollars spent, years of tears wept. Still no baby. Only in vitro fertilization remained. On the way to the final IVF procedure my husband stopped in a Dunkin Donuts for his waiting room snacks. While in line “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses blasted. And he knew. It was a sign. He was certain it was all going to work and we were going to have a baby. But I didn’t believe him.
When his period of service in the Temple was over, Zechariah went back home. Some time later his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and did not leave the house for five months. “Now at last the Lord has helped me,” she said. “He has taken away my public disgrace!”- Luke 1:23-25
Can you picture Elizabeth’s raised eyebrows as Zechariah gestured at their bedside? Can you imagine how incredulous they were as her body changed to grow this miracle baby? Can you hear her happy triumph?
When the IVF doctor called to say “Congratulations! You’re pregnant!” I didn’t know what to say. I stared at my ultrasound pictures for hours. I sauntered around Pottery Barn Kids with my hands on my big belly.
Soon afterward Mary got ready and hurried off to a town in the hill country of Judea. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby moved within her. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said in a loud voice, “You are the most blessed of all women, and blessed is the child you will bear! Why should this great thing happen to me, that my Lord’s mother comes to visit me? For as soon as I heard your greeting, the baby within me jumped with gladness. How happy you are to believe that the Lord’s message to you will come true!”- Luke 1:39-45
I’ve always found it so tender of the Lord that Mary got pregnant after Elizabeth. If she was anything like me, I don’t know if she could take hearing about another teen pregnancy, by someone claiming to be a virgin, no less. I love that Elizabeth was well into her second trimester, plump and glowing with an active baby responding to a freshly begotten Jesus inside Mary.
Then everyone gives birth. Elizabeth and Zechariah have John, celebrated by relatives and neighbors (Luke 1:58). Mary and Joseph have Jesus, celebrated by angels, shepherds and wise men (Luke 2:8-20, Matthew 2:9-11). Chris and I have twins, sadly not named Axl and Slash. All of the babies are miracles.
I wished the stories ended here. Healthy babies with squishy thighs. Me, Elizabeth, and Mary reveling in answered prayers, pondering it all in our hearts.
But it doesn’t. Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed for a child. They never prayed for a radical hippie son who would one day baptize the Messiah and be beheaded by a politician’s mistress. Mary prayed, “may it happen as you have said” (Luke 1:38). She didn’t imagine she’d someday watch her son’s public execution.
I didn’t know what I was really asking for when I prayed to be a mother. It’s so hard. Every single day I’m flummoxed by the constant demands of my children’s mind, body, spirit, and soul care. I get tired, angry, and desperate. After I drop off the kids at school I sometimes cry and hit the steering wheel, asking God to just show up.
Then I remember. He already did.