Helen's Mulberry Lane Farm Journal
December 23, 2020.
Be It Unto Me...
by Helen and Gerald Aardsma written in 1996 for The Mother's Companion.
Gerald's nativity set from his childhood.
I lay down, but I knew sleep would be impossible. My mind was whirling with so many thoughts and questions and my eyes were still burning from the angelic light. Me, bearing a child---The Child---the long awaited Messiah? "Nothing shall be impossible," the angel had said. But why this dull ache in my heart?
I tossed and turned for hours as my jumbled thoughts slowly untangled themselves. Eventually the problem came into focus.
No, it was not unbelief, nor was it any unwillingness to serve the Lord in this way. Indeed, my heart glowed even now with the same burning joy with which it had responded to the angel's message just hours previously.
Nor was I concerned for my personal safety or reputation. Many, I knew, would not understand my pre-nuptial pregnancy. Ordinarily the Law commanded stoning in such cases, and slander and gossip were inevitable in any event. I had understood the risks and consequences right from the start. I had surrendered myself and my reputation to God, believing He could look after the consequences, when I had said to the angel, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word". I had no desire or any intention of violating these sincere words of personal consecration.
No, it was none of these things. It was Joseph.
For the littles to play with....
The problem finally having come clear, I turned to God in prayer. "Oh, Jehovah, what about Joseph? He is so kind and so sensitive, and I love him so much. How will he feel? How can I bear to wound him with this news? Will he not naturally conclude that I have been unfaithful to our pledge of love? And will this not crush him bitterly? Oh God, how can I let this happen to Joseph? Must my obedience to You cost Joseph so high a price?"
But there was no answer in the darkness---no angelic presence lit the room.
I thought daylight would never come as the night dragged on and on. I drifted into an exhausted sleep as the final hour of the night ebbed away, only to be startled awake by a sudden thought. Elisabeth! The angel had said that she also had conceived a son---she who had been barren all her life and was now an old woman. Her pregnancy was an impossible one too! I must go and talk with Elisabeth.
As the dawn began to break there came a peace and inner resolution. I would go see Elisabeth and stay with her. I knew that this urging was from the Lord in answer to my prayer. No doubt she would welcome some help around the house in her pregnant condition. It would give me a chance to sort out my own emotions. And there were so many things I now needed to learn about pregnancy and birthing and caring for an infant. Who better to learn from than wise, humble, sweet Elisabeth? It would put off my having to break the news to Joseph, and leave his heart undisturbed a little longer. Yes, I would travel with the next caravan to Jerusalem.
Joseph came to the house to see me off. I felt so embarrassed around him. I didn't really know what to say. We had always been so open with each other before, and I didn't like keeping this secret from him now. It broke my heart to see his questioning look. I tried to reassure him that everything was fine---that I was just going to help Elisabeth for a few months. I could tell he wasn't convinced, that he sensed something was amiss. But in his characteristic gentle strength he didn't press me. He just softly spoke his love and told me to enjoy this rare vacation. I wanted so much to confide in him, but it seemed impossible to do so. I was both relieved and regretful as the caravan finally started out.
The sky was bright, and the early morning sun was warm. It was a beautiful morning, but I hardly noticed. I was lost in thought as we traveled along. As Nazareth slowly faded from view behind us I determined to think only about what lay ahead.
The second day's travel was much the same as the first---beautiful in the morning, but slow, hot, and wearisome by midday. But at last I could see the hill country where Elizabeth lived. I couldn't wait to see her and hear all about her pregnancy. I had so many
questions for her. "I hope she will be there and not away visiting relatives," I thought.
Finally we began the ascent up the hill to Elisabeth's home town. Evening was fast approaching, and I was hungry and tired as we passed the town gates. "Dear God, please have Elisabeth be home," I prayed.
Our caravan was welcomed by many friendly greetings from people of the town. Though it had been quite some time since I had last been here, nothing much had changed.
When I arrived at Elisabeth's front door all was quiet. The bell clanged loudly as I rang it. I was relieved when a voice requested that I enter.
My first sight of Elisabeth was rather shocking. At first her back was turned to me, but as I entered the eating area, she stood and turned to greet me with an exclamation of joyous surprise. Her hair was now completely white and her complexion was wrinkled, and these familiar characteristics of old age contrasted curiously with her rounded tummy. "How strange the ways of God," I thought. "He has chosen this old, barren woman to have a special baby for Him, and me, an unknown girl from a poor family in Nazareth to carry and birth the Messiah."
I greeted Elisabeth by her old family name, "Elishaba."
At this greeting she clutched her stomach and cried, "Oh! The baby just jumped!" Then she fixed her eyes on me and said, "God has blessed you more than any other woman. And God has blessed the baby which you will give birth to. You are the mother of my Lord, and you have come to me! Why has something so good happened to me?" Tears began to flow down both our faces as she continued, "When I heard your voice, the baby inside me jumped with joy. You are blessed because you believed that what the Lord said to you would really happen."
How she encouraged my heart as she spoke those words! She, at least, understood and approved of my pregnancy, and before I had even said a word about it to anyone! Such affirmation from this godly, older woman meant more to me in that moment than I can ever say. Through tears of joy I replied, "My soul praises the Lord; my heart is happy because God is my Savior. I am not important, but God has shown His care for me, His servant girl. From now on, all people will say that I am blessed, because the Powerful One has done great things for me. His name is holy. God will always give mercy to those who worship Him. God's arm is strong. He scatters the people who are proud and think great things about themselves. God brings down rulers from their thrones, and He raises up the humble. God fills the hungry with good things, but He sends the rich away with nothing. God has helped His people Israel who serve Him. He gave them His mercy. God has done what He promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his children forever."
We cried and embraced for several minutes, then we both began to speak at once. But Elisabeth soon insisted I sit down and rest and have some supper. "We can talk later," she said.
Zacharias began to motion to Elisabeth. I had been so absorbed in Elisabeth's greeting I hadn't noticed until now how unusually quiet Zacharias had been since I had come in. Elisabeth quickly explained the circumstances surrounding Zacharias' silence---his encounter with the angel while serving in the temple, in which he had been struck dumb. "What a contrast," I thought, "between the outpouring of God's supernatural presence at this time, and the centuries of silence which have preceded it."
After a refreshing meal together Elisabeth and I sat and talked long into the night. First Elisabeth told her story. She told of how the angel had come to her husband with the astounding news that he would have a son. The angel had said that he was to be called John, and that he would play a very special part in the preparation for the Messiah's appearance. "Unfortunately, he wasn't as quick to believe God as you were Mary," she chuckled, taking Zacharias' bony hand in hers and giving it a loving pat, "and now he has to listen to me do all the talking." Zacharias merely responded with a happy grin.
"Mary, the angel said that my baby will be great in the sight of the Lord, and be filled with the Holy Spirit even from my womb. Why should God bestow upon me this wonderful privilege? And now to be given the joy of being in the presence of my Savior even before He has been born!"
And then it was my turn to tell my miraculous story. Zacharias and Elisabeth both wept silently as I shared about the angel's visit and his great pronouncement to me. "Elisabeth, I am going to have a baby too---The Messiah! I feel so---so completely fulfilled to serve God in this way, and I am so happy to do so. But I don't really know anything about pregnancy or childbirth or caring for a baby. Could I possibly stay with you a while? I could help around the house, and help you as you prepare for the birth of your baby. I have so much to learn and you could teach me so many things. I would love to attend your baby's birth and help you afterwards. I feel it could help us both."
Elisabeth and Zacharias looked at one another, their eyes twinkling. Elisabeth said, "Mary, you are an answer to our prayers. It's not easy for this old lady to keep up with the housework and carry a baby too. Zacharias and I have been praying about what to do about it. You have been sent by the Lord."
Made by my daughter-in-love Esther.
The days that followed seemed to fly by. We would do all the housework and preparation of meals in the cool of the mornings and evenings. I did all the shopping for Elisabeth while she stayed inside the house. Though this pregnancy in her old age was a special sign from God, few of her neighbors thought so. They said her aged pregnancy was "unnatural", by which, unfortunately, they did not mean miraculous, but rather, indiscreet and indecent. Her neighbors were good, God-fearing folk, but as is often the case, they were having trouble grasping what God was doing in Elisabeth's life. I guess they somehow assumed that God's miracles would always be comfortable things---culturally acceptable and dignified.
Each day brought with it the usual activities. We worked together grinding wheat for cakes, preparing the fire to cook them, and cleaning up the dishes. We swept and tidied, and scrubbed and hung out the laundry together. There were figs and grapes to dry for the cold months ahead, olive oil lamps to be cleaned and filled, and fresh produce from the garden to be picked and prepared for meals each day.
And all the while we talked about babies, babies and babies. Poor Zacharias---he spent a lot of time in his garden.
After lunch we would each retire to our rooms for a nap. Then we would meet in the late afternoon, during the hottest part of the day, to sew. As Elisabeth worked on her baby's clothes I worked on mine. I made my first shawls and linen coverings for my baby. Elisabeth taught me fine embroidery which we put on the hems of all the garments.
As we sewed we talked more about babies. Elisabeth passed along so many helpful ideas. Though this would be her first child, she had cared for nephews and nieces of all ages for years and had a wealth of experience to share. Growing up I had just assumed that mothering skills came as part of the package with the arrival of the first baby. I now saw how wrong I had been---how much I had to learn---and I was deeply thankful for this time with Elisabeth.
We often shared verses from the Law and the Prophets. They came up naturally as we talked about raising godly children for Jehovah. And occasionally we would sing praises to God together as we worked. Elisabeth was a continuous fountain of joy; her thankful spirit was contagious. It was a blessed time.
As the time for Elisabeth's birth drew near, she began an incredible house cleaning. Her energy amazed me as I worked beside her. And then she retired to her room. I could tell the time was close and that she wanted to be alone. I knew she would be spending it in prayer and the recitation of Psalms as she gathered her physical and spiritual strength for the impending birth.
Several days later Elisabeth complained of feeling very uncomfortable. She rested most of the day, and ate and spoke little. I reassured her that I would get the midwife when she felt like calling for her. I sat with her and tried to encourage her that the long awaited birth was imminent and that soon she would have a very special baby to love and nurse.
Zacharias took my place when he got home that evening. I made supper, then cleaned up and retired to my room. I had just fallen asleep for the night when Zacharias woke me and told me to get the midwife. She was only several houses down and we quickly returned to the house together.
Zacharias went into the garden to pray, and I did whatever the midwife requested of me. I watched with some anxiety as Elisabeth groaned on her bed with pain. I clutched my stomach and wondered how I would ever be able to do what she was doing. I tried to be brave for Elisabeth's sake, but I made sure she couldn't see my face, which I was sure was betraying me.
The labor was long---a slowly accelerating cycle of contractions and rest. After many hours Elisabeth's groaning changed somewhat and the midwife began telling her to push down hard, that she would soon see her baby. As best I could judge, Elisabeth wasn't thinking much about babies at this point, but only of how to get rid of the pain. Still, she was amazing to watch as she gathered up her strength and pushed---what she lacked in youthful muscle, she certainly made up for in seasoned sinew.
The final stage of labor with its grueling pushing seemed like hours, though, in fact, it didn't last all that long. Eventually the head emerged, topped with masses of beautiful dark curly hair. The midwife was talking very gently to Elisabeth now, urging her to give one more small push. Though visibly exhausted, she gathered her strength again and pushed one last time.
Yes, a baby boy, just as the angel had foretold. He cried lustily as the midwife tenderly put him in Elisabeth's arms.
The smile which Elisabeth now radiated was truly wonderful to see. Tears were coming down both our faces as she cooed to her baby and touched his tiny hands. All the pain and discomfort of the last hours were clearly worth it to Elisabeth for even just this one moment!
Elisabeth said, "Do you know how many years I have longed to have a child of my own to love? The Lord has taken away my shame. He has granted my desire and longing for a child. Oh praise the Lord, the God of Israel!"
She held the baby to her breast, and he began sucking vigorously.
"Mary, summon Zacharias," she said.
The room became silent as Zacharias knelt by Elisabeth's bed and watched his son contentedly sucking at his wife's breast. Tears of joy streamed down his old face as he tenderly stroked Elisabeth's arm. God had been so good. The midwife and I left them alone to share the joy of this long-awaited moment in private.
While the midwife retired to the kitchen for a hot drink, I went out to the garden and took in the ever-exhilarating panorama of moon and stars. It was a beautiful clear night. I thought of Joseph back home, and longed to be with him. I would need to head for home in just a few days now---my apprenticeship under Elisabeth was obviously nearly complete. But still I quailed at the thought of telling Joseph of my pregnancy.
I finally confided my fears to Elisabeth the evening before I was to leave for home. She was rocking John as she nursed him. He was dressed in one of the beautiful embroidered gowns she had so lovingly prepared for him. His dark hair contrasted beautifully with his white linen gown. Though a week had passed, Elisabeth's delight in John had not dimmed. In fact, her mother-love had only grown. She seldom took her eyes off his tiny form.
"Elisabeth," I said, "I need to talk to you about something important before I go. You know how happy I am to serve God in bearing this Child. I really don't care what others might think or say. I know I have been obedient to the Lord, and my relationship to Him is more important than anything else. But I'm confused and troubled about Joseph. Elisabeth, I love him so very much. I just don't know how I can face him with this news. He'll be so hurt; he'll surely think I've been unfaithful. I spoke with the angel. I saw his shining radiance, and heard his heaven-sent message. And I've seen and heard what God has done in your lives. But Joseph has been a part of none of this. I fear the truth will seem terribly far-fetched to him. Elisabeth, he is strong in mind and body, but his heart is sensitive and tender. I know this news will crush him. I don't want that to happen. Oh Elisabeth, do you understand? What should I do?"
"Oh Mary," she said, "have you been harboring this burden all these months? You should have talked with me about it sooner."
She continued to rock silently for a few minutes. I waited, knowing she was collecting her thoughts and seeking wisdom from God. As she looked up at me, there was a softness in her eyes, and a tenderness in her voice as she spoke.
"There is nothing unusual or unnatural about the way you feel, Mary. We all want to protect those we love from hurt and pain. It is a curious fact that it is often easier to suffer pain ourselves than to watch those we love do so. And it is often easier to surrender our own way unto the Lord than it is to let God have His way with our loved ones."
"Mary, do you know that as a young woman I was proud, self-assured, and insensitive? I see you find this hard to believe, but it is sadly true. I was very resourceful and I thought I could handle any situation and accomplish whatever I pleased. But after Zacharias and I had been married several years I realized that I could not conceive, and no amount of resourcefulness on my part could change that fact."
"I have lived with the pain and reproach of barrenness for many decades, Mary, and there is no denying it has changed me. But I, more than anybody else, know the change has only been for the better, even though the experience has not been pleasant."
"Mary, God does not send us pain because He hates us, but only because He loves us. It is His tool to chip away all that is ugly about us. Would I be better off a haughty, self-centered grandmother than I am this day? Would you have done me a favor if you had been somehow able to shelter me from the pain of barrenness those many decades?"
"Mary, we must let the pain God sends into the lives of those we love have its perfect work. If we try to shelter them from it we only deny them God's instrument of love, and we ultimately do them great harm."
Sleep came easily that night. God had challenged me, I knew, through the words of Elisabeth, to a yet higher plane of surrender and consecration. As I drifted off to sleep I prayed, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me---and all I hold dear---according to Your good pleasure."