Most of us are expats. We live in a country other than the country(ies) in which we were raised. We’ve all experienced moving abroad and all the incumbent excitement and possibility, but also difficult goodbyes and culture shock and loneliness. I didn’t precisely know what I would encounter when I moved to Leuven, and for me, the experience of relocation was full of joy and blessing but also of pain and brokenness. Tonight I would like to invite us to reflect on that connection between blessing and brokenness.
We light candles during Advent to symbolise the light of Christ dawning: for the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and then on Christmas Day a fifth candle is lit for Jesus Himself.
But there is one person for whom no candle is lit. She links John the Baptist with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she beckons us to reflect on blessing and brokenness. That person is Elizabeth. We heard about her in our reading from Luke. Elizabeth is the cousin of Mary, married to the priest Zechariah, who in her advanced years of life gives birth to the prophet John the Baptist.
From our reading, we get the immediate sense that Mary and Elizabeth share a special bond. When Mary receives news of her pregnancy, she desires first of all to see her cousin Elizabeth. While the men on the scene are full of doubts and misgivings — Zechariah is disbelieving and Joseph is tempted to pack up and abandon Mary — Elizabeth stands full of the Spirit and she becomes the first person in Luke’s Gospel to recognize the Incarnation of Christ. Is it any wonder that centuries later we still repeat Elizabeth’s words to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb… Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
It is this phrase that I have meditated on for the past few weeks: “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her.” Words spoken from experience, I think. Elizabeth, who had received a blessing, could recognize the blessedness of her cousin.
But this blessedness is not for the faint of heart. Blessing, for Elizabeth and Mary, is not uncomplicated. Elizabeth’s story of blessing closely mirrors Mary’s. There is
- a miraculous announcement
- an unlikely pregnancy
- a disbelieving partner
- a community that casts disgrace
- a prophecy regarding each child
And the prophecies regarding their children will bring both women to that place of despair and pain that all parents hope that they never, never reach: to the death of her child. Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises,” but of course the Lord will fulfill his promises in ways which cost Elizabeth and Mary dearly. Elizabeth’s blessing constitutes her greatest joy and her brokenness.
Henri Nouwen writes in his book The Wounded Healer that bound up in the blessing of being the people of God is our brokenness. Brokenness, he says, is bound up in our blessedness, in our uniqueness and individuality… it is entangled in our vocation. When we see blessedness and brokenness in this light, as entangled in the mystery of who we are as people of God, we can dare to overcome our fear and become witnesses of both blessing and brokenness. This is the key to our vocation. The various cultures from which we come find it easier to manipulate people who reject their brokenness than people who accept it. Fearsome as it might sound, we must claim our unique brokenness alongside our blessedness and hold these together like a mother holds pain and joy.
I believe that Elizabeth reveals the height of wisdom: she is able to hold blessedness and brokenness in the same open hands. Elizabeth could have chosen to focus only on her brokenness: she was an insightful and spirit-filled person, she had an idea of the difficult path laid out for her son. She could have leaned to the one side of brokenness, full of despair, and missed all of the joy of her motherhood and discipleship. Or she could have leaned to the other side: to a lopsided focus on blessedness— happy, simple, chirpy, and uncomplicated without any of the realities of despair. But then she would have had to face her horrible loss without resilience.
To claim the goodness of what God has done for us alongside the difficulty — that is what Elizabeth challenges us to do. Where Zechariah and Joseph push back against the difficult plan unfolding, Elizabeth sees blessedness and brokenness, birth and death, love and loss, presence, absence, hope, despair. And she witnesses to all of it. She reminds us that our experiences are not barren, but full of life and fruit. She reminds us that our brokenness and blessing is what we birth, what we bring into the world.
I attended a conference this week on African Theologies and I would like to share what one theologian, Dr. Orobator, said to us: “More than ever, we need a theology of witnesses. Theological vocation is not embodied in words. It is INCARNATED in BODIES which give birth to TRUTH.” To give birth. To struggle. This is your calling and mine as Christ bearers. That is what Advent means to us: To give birth to truth. To give birth to the One who bears all of our truths, all of our experiences of pain and hope and struggle. This Advent I would like to journey alongside Elizabeth, to learn from her experience of brokenness and blessing and boldly exclaim, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises!” Likewise, blessed are we. Amen.