Jgs 13:2-7, 24-25a; Ps 71:3-4a, 5-6ab, 16-17, 18-19; Lk 1:5-25
“O Radix Jesse: O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”
The liturgy places before us two barren women. Two sad and barren women arise on our Advent horizon as we move swiftly into the mystery to the day of the birth of the Eternally Begotten Son of God. These two icons of barren women invite us to ponder the creative and life-giving power of the Living God. His promise bears fruit as the O Antiphon reminds us, the root of Jesse has flowered. The Son of Jesse, King David, has an heir to his throne, forever. With all the kings of the earth, with all the powerful upon the land, we stand silent at the sight of this Flower of Jesse’s stem. The longing of Advent gives birth to the Silent Night when all from highest to lowest are filled with awe and wonder beyond words. The LORD does not hold back; he comes in power to save us. He is the safe house where we dwell and the solid foundation on which we build our lives. The hand of our enemies does not reach into our hearts and crush our bruised hearts or quench our smoldering wicks. From our mothers’ wombs we have depended upon the LORD God Almighty for strength. In his justice the Lord, Our Savior, has treated us with mighty works and shown us his wondrous deeds. The wife of Manoah courageously receives the message of an Angel announcing that her barren womb is about to flower; Manoah is not so sure of the identity of the messenger. He demands a sign, and is stuck dumb when the Angel ascends on high with the smoke of their sacrifice. The husband of Elizabeth, too, is struck dumb by the voice of the Angel who brings news–too good to hear. The barren Elizabeth is about to have a son; she who was thought to be too old will give birth to the voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” We, too, who have been less than fruitful in our lives of prayer, are given an Advent Promise of fruitful love. Soon our barren hearts will give birth to the Word and our mute voices will sing out irrepressible Joy.
The oppression of the Philistines was as unbearable as the barren womb of the wife of Manoah. They both felt the burden of not having any descendents. In their sadness they did not blame each other, but their love bore the fruit of patient waiting and faithful trust in the LORD. This spousal love made them strong as a couple. Likewise, the spousal love of Israel for the LORD made him strong to wait for a savior to come and liberate them from the power of the Philistine overlords. Into the quiet life of a couple from the tribe of Dan of the city of Zorah came the angelic announcement, “Though you are barren and have had no children, yet you will conceive and bear a son.” This was good news for the barren wife of Manoah, but her husband found it to be “too good to be true.” In the longer account of this story we hear that Manoah demanded that his wife find out the details from this supposed heavenly messenger. The barren woman was physically and psychologically empty and ready to receive this life-giving word. Her husband was just a little more removed from the cross of barrenness; he was not as ready and open as his wife. Eventually the Angel returned and Manoah tested his authenticity. He was given a sign and he believed. Out of his wife’s suffering and his struggle to trust the word from on high came the birth of a savior for Israel, and they named him Samson. This child of the promise grew up shielded from wine and strong drink by his parents. The Holy Spirit inebriated him, and he became the strong hand of the Lord outstretched to aid his people, Israel.
Like the wife of Manoah, Elizabeth felt profoundly the cross of her barren womb. Both were hollowed out by their suffering, and this transformation made them ready and open to receive the radically good news of life within. Elizabeth cried out, “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.” Again, the faith of the barren one is greater than that of her husband. Zechariah, too, had to suffer a purification of his doubt, and this took place in his being mute from the time of his encounter with the Archangel Gabriel till the flowering of the promise. Just as his wife could bear no son, Zechariah could produce no sound. Long-term suffering can make us bitter or beautiful. Elizabeth was beautiful in her expectant faith and in her empty womb. Perhaps because she felt it in her flesh and daily in her being looked down upon by the neighbor women, Elizabeth was profoundly challenged and powerfully re-made into a fruitful mother. Zechariah was a priest and privileged to stand before the Throne of the Most High and offer incense and sacrifice, yet he seemed little effected by such regular contact with the LORD. Even when Gabriel reminded him of his own regular and painful petition to God for a son, he was not reassured. The public aspect of his priesthood and even the power of his speech was taken away so that in a much more private and quiet lifestyle he might have the solitude to consider all that the Lord had done with him and for him. So that he might have the time to reconsider the Archangel’s message and trust in the LORD. Trust, as did his wife. The two sons, Samson and John the Baptist were both protected from wine and strong drink. This made them even more vulnerable to the influence of the Holy Spirit who was strong in both. Indeed, it was the Holy Spirit who changed the barren Israel and the barren women into a fruitful land, abundant with new life. This is the same Spirit who longs to fill us and make us new in the image of Christ and for the glory of the Father, now and ever and forever!