In this week’s gospel reading, Luke presents the joyful scene of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed for believing “that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (1:45). Gabriel promised that she would not only bear a son, but that he would reign as king, restoring the Davidic throne and fulfilling the words of the prophets, as we read in this week’s selection from Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel… And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace” (5:2,4).
That Elizabeth takes special interest in Mary’s faithfulness is fitting, as it was her husband, Zechariah, who responded to Gabriel’s glad tidings not with faith, but doubt. Upon hearing that he and Elizabeth would bear a son of their own, Zechariah asks, “How will I know that this is so?” (1:18). Even though Gabriel promises the renewal of his people and the joy of new birth, Zechariah’s response is skepticism. “I am an old man,” he tells Gabriel, “and my wife is getting on in years.” It is too late for things to change. He has made his quiet compromise with the way things are and prefers the certainty of disappointment to this late, unexpected fulfillment.
Yet there is a cost to his skepticism. Zechariah’s denial of the good news is the denial of his wife Elizabeth. Over the course of her life, she has not only had to bear the disappointment of barrenness, but suffer society’s condemnation on top of it (1:25). Zechariah’s desire for certainty, his resignation to the way things are, is really an inability to see his wife in any other terms than those that society has projected upon her. It is credulity disguised as skepticism, conformity veiled in the desire for more proof. Failing to acknowledge Gabriel’s glad tidings is a failure to acknowledge his wife’s claim upon him. It is a failure to acknowledge her voice: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Small wonder that Elizabeth gravitates towards Mary, who has come to Zechariah’s house to do what Zechariah cannot do: acknowledge her release from the suffocating constraints of society’s judgment. In commending Mary’s belief, Elizabeth exposes her husband’s skepticism as an inability to question this society. It is a parody of true skepticism. A true skepticism believes enough to perceive the contingency of the present order and question that order in the light of a dawning kingdom – one in which the proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty (1:51-53).
Zechariah eventually recovers his voice and joins in Mary’s song. He too learns to believe, and in believing, to question. This Advent, may we aspire to Elizabeth’s blessing, to be a people who know how to question because we have dared to believe.