The second model of faith to consider in the Advent season is the unassuming Elizabeth. Her humble nature comes out in the question she presents in a rhetorical way at the time of Mary’s Visitation: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43). In other words, who am I to be so honored? This was no false humility but the genuine virtue which enables a person to evaluate his or her own self in the light of the greatness of Almighty God. And so, neither the extreme of breast-beating, self-deprecating insincerity nor that of a bloated ego out of all touch with reality.
Because Elizabeth understands her own littleness (belonging to the long line of faithful anawim in the Hebrew Scriptures), she also understands Who God is, both in Himself and for her personally. Even her name highlights this, for it means “God is faithful.” Elizabeth bears this message within herself and thus knows intuitively that the Lord will not abandon her by leaving her barren. Like Hannah, she hopes against hope and, in God’s good time, has her fidelity to Fidelity personified rewarded with the conception of her son. If we were to try to update the Elizabeth story for today, it would have to be noted that the absolute sovereignty of God meant so much to her and other true believers that artificial conception (e.g., in vitro, etc.) and artificial contraception alike would have been regarded as abhorrent. Why? Because they are manipulative of the divine Will, putting a creature in the role of the Creator. No, Elizabeth understood that if the Lord had sworn, He would do it. Hence, confident trust.
Unlike her husband Zechariah the priest, Elizabeth is a person of such great faith that she reads God’s Will in the humdrum circumstances of daily life, with no need of special revelations. Ironically, Zechariah receives the message of the angel but still does not believe, while Elizabeth simply carries on with the tasks assigned to her by Divine Providence. Of course, we always have people with us like both the husband and the wife. Some Catholics chase after every extraordinary manifestation of God’s presence they can find, in a globe-trotting effort to make contact with the hidden God, Who (they are unwilling to admit) must ultimately remain hidden—even in revelations—if He is to be and to remain the God of mystery and transcendence communicated to us in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition. Others, however, are content with encountering the Lord in the more “normal” and perhaps less exciting ways used by believers for two millennia: the Scriptures, the sacraments, the Magisterium; these folks do not deny the possibility of private revelations, nor do they sneer at those who seem to have an inordinate need for them, but they are merely content with living in the incomplete knowledge which is the lot of most of us here below, awaiting the revelation of the full glory to which we are called when the Lord shows Himself completely at the end of time.
Elizabeth’s brand of faith is contagious. Her infant son in the womb “catches” it, so that he “leap[s] for joy” (Lk 1:44) at the sound of Mary’s voice as she bears within herself the promised Messiah. Fascinating to reflect on is the dialogue of salvation which occurs between the two unborn children. (So much for talk about “fetal tissue” or “products of conception.”) Rather, Almighty God begins His love affair with us from the first moment when He breathes His life into us at conception. But there’s another dimension to the contagion of Elizabeth’s faith; it is offered by Gabriel as a reason for Mary herself to believe: “And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God” (Lk 1:36).
Yet another effect of faith is joy, manifested in a lovely way by the leaping child in Elizabeth’s womb. Joy, however, should not be confused with hilarity or a superficial form of transient happiness. On the contrary, joy is a state of being in which a person rests comfortable and assured of God’s power and will to save. Thus one can be joyful after an earthquake, upon learning of one’s diagnosis as terminally ill, amidst financial ruin. This attitude of joy is grounded in Elizabeth’s name, “God has sworn.” Or as St. Paul would later put it,
What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? . . . No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:35-39).
Joy enabled Mary (like all the other great women of faith—Sarah, Hannah, Ruth—in the Hebrew Tradition) to see through the darkness of her unplanned pregnancy, beyond the ignominy of Calvary, to the glory of Christ’s resurrection and her own assumption. Joy gives people the ability to view temporal affairs sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity). Modern man is short on joy because he is short on faith.
What the angel begins in saluting Mary, Elizabeth continues, for Heaven’s work must be completed on earth, just as earth’s work is fulfilled in Heaven. So, Gabriel’s greeting of Mary as the one who is “full of grace” is implicitly acknowledged by Elizabeth who declares that our Lady is “blessed among women,” as well as the fruit of her womb, Jesus. And what Elizabeth did, the Church has done ever since in Mary’s regard; after all, the Blessed Mother under the influence of the Holy Spirit had declared in her Magnificat (used by the Church at Vespers each day) that this would happen: “Behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). In point of fact, her entire canticle of praise is merely the continuation of the cycle of faith and joy which had its origins in Elizabeth.
The two women of faith keep each other company for three months. When it comes time for Elizabeth to deliver her child and the discussion about the baby’s name ensues, it is Elizabeth who functions as the prophet or spokesperson for her husband the dumb-struck priest. Once she mouths the words of faith and obedience (“No. He will be called John.”), Zechariah concurs, with the result that his tongue is loosed, enabling him to sing his Benedictus. Like any good spouse, Elizabeth has helped bring her partner to the full experience of salvation.
Elizabeth was pivotal in the lives of both Mary and Zechariah, as well as for the children being carried; she was a facilitator of faith. Indeed, the songs inspired by her faith (the Benedictus and Magnificat) are the very hinges of the Church’s sacrifice of praise offered each day in the Liturgy of the Hours, that prayer which springs from faith and gives birth to joy.