In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.Luke 1:5-7
Perhaps because I am, if not yet among the “very old,” at least clearly among the old, I find myself confronted by the two readings today in a very different way than in the past. As I imagine the appearance of the angel to the wife of Manoah (who is not even worthy of a name of her own) as related in Judges and the angel’s appearance to Zechariah in the gospel of Luke, I sense not only the wonder and joy bearing progeny at such an advanced age, but also the terror of having one’s life, so accustomed to the habit of living without children, now being so dramatically changed and demanding. We are told that both Elizabeth and Zechariah are righteous in God’s sight and observe the Law blamelessly. They are good people, but now, even in the reality of the limits and diminishment of aging, God asks so much more of them.
Lately I have found myself reflecting on the “mixed blessing” of children even for young couples. Of course, it is all that they have longed for since choosing to come together in marriage, and yet, on the other hand, the way of life they have come to share with each other will be, with the arrival of a child who will be totally dependent on them, drastically different. It will no longer be their own needs and desires or even their concern to meet the needs and desires of the other that will be focal in their lives, but rather the needs of their child. Although I am not personally familiar with the experience, I cannot imagine that there are not moments where young parents feel ambivalence about the arrival and presence of their child.
This being the case, how much more “terrifying” must such an occurrence be for those who are now old and asked to “make room” in their lives despite the reality that they are so much more physically and even emotionally diminished. As I’m sure any grandparent who has unexpectedly had to care full time for a grandchild or grandchildren can attest, there is great new life and joy in the presence of a beloved child but the personal cost and disruption of their own life is most significant.
There is a universal spiritual teaching in the experience of these old people in today’s readings who are being offered this gift of God for which they have longed their whole lives. We speak of the grace of God as a “free gift,” and so it is. Yet, a gift in the spiritual sense is different from one in the material. A gift from God to us requires a very active reception that includes within it a generous responsibility for the gift and to the Giver. Perhaps at the risk of trivializing such a profound experience, I am reminded of the old aphorism: “Be careful what you wish for.” We may spend our lives pleading with God for the gifts of authenticity and generativity, but then not being quite sure we can handle the circumstances in which those gifts are given. For example, an aging religious community such as my own, may “think” that it suffers from its lack of new members and would desire above all a “growth in vocations.” Yet, were there young people who were attracted to our life and our mission, our own lives, at such an advanced age, would have to be changed dramatically. To actually have the very different dispositions of young people with and among us all the time would overturn our lives in ways that, at times, would seem unmanageable.
The dynamic which we are describing applies not only literally to the presence of new “children.” It is true of every call to spiritual awakening and to a new way to be with and for others, the call that is continual throughout all of our lives if we are awake to it. Our own unique life call, which is our unique task, mission, assignment in and for the world, is never totally realized in this life. Continually “the angel” comes to us asking us to bear new life, to allow God to give birth anew to the Divine child within us. It is the human condition to be of two minds about this, both desiring it with all our hearts and resisting it with all our strength. We pray that Christ be born in us, yet we also tremble, at least a bit, of what kind of change in our lives and demands on our self-orientation that birth will require. Life is harder when we are old, our bodies and oftentimes our minds cannot respond as quickly and maintain their attention and diligence so consistently as when we were young. The great temptation that this truth gives rise to is that we stop being generative. Perhaps when it is most important, as we draw closer to what we see as death, we are tempted to cease serving the birth of new life in our world.
So, we can wonder, after the birth of their child, how did Manoah and his wife and Elizabeth and Zechariah do? There had to be days when their exhaustion and maybe frustration threatened to overcome them. Yet, clearly as the lives of their progeny, Samson and John the Baptist, attest, in love and in abandonment to God’s will for them, they were able to impart their love and their sense of mission to their children. As Adrian van Kaam would often remind us, “God does not ask anything of us that we are unable to do.”
Whatever our age, the powerful injunction of Deuteronomy is always before us: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” (Deut 30:19-20) In order to choose life at all times, we need to recognize that such a choice is not always easy. Often the choice for life is a disruptive one. What looks much more reasonable, realistic, and doable may be the choice for death. Perhaps it is not just the appearance of the angel that frightens the one who is being visited. It is quite possibly also the “demand” that the angel presents, the demand for yet more life. Yes, Elizabeth and Zechariah are “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” That is not enough, however, They are also to be bearers of new life, a life that will prepare the world for the coming of the Lord. It is in their old age that they are to make their greatest contribution to the work of God in the world.
The Fundamental Principles ask us to “Stand ready to answer God / when He asks you / if you are available for Him / to become more present in your life / and through you to the world.” it does not say to “stand ready” up to just a certain age, or state of mind, or state of health. As we approach the end of Advent, we witness that Jesus is born into the world for us because Mary and those before her were standing ready throughout their lives, awaiting what God would ask of them and, in turn, being responsible for serving the realization of the gift, even at what must have often seemed to be great personal cost.
When generosity is a fundamental disposition of a person’s being, then all the other virtues are increased and all the powers of the soul adorned, for a generous person is always joyful in spirit and carefree of heart, filled to overflowing with desires and dedicated to all persons without distinction in the practice of virtue. However poor a person might be, if that person is generous and not enamored of the things of this world, that one is like God. All that lies within that person and all that the person feels flow forth as a gift, and in this way the person drives away the fourth capital sin, which is avarice of miserliness. Of such a person Christ says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy: (Mt 5:7), namely, on that day when they hear the words: “Come, you blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom which, because of your mercy, has been prepared for you from the creation of the world” (cf. Mt 25;3-4).Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, III, A