Tis the season that seems to be dedicated to all things children. With a baby the focus of the biblical narrative and children the participants and intended audiences of many of our cultural traditions, Advent and Christmas celebrations can be difficult times to connect with more mature members. How do we share the story of joy and God’s love incarnate with those who have experienced their own measures of disappointment and weight of knowing the reality of impossibilities firsthand?
If we read through the narrative as shared in the third Gospel, we remember that according to Luke’s orderly account, the story begins with the priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. By way of introduction, we are told of their righteous and blameless lives rooted in all God’s commandments. We also learn that they have no children and that “both are getting on in years” (Luke 1:6-7, NRSV). During his once-in-a-lifetime conversation with the angel at the altar of incense a few verses later, Zechariah identifies himself, “I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (Luke 1:18). Was aging a touchy subject even 2,000+ years ago? Was he saying this aloud as an excuse of some kind? And was it really necessary to use several different ways to talk about their age? Was it just coincidental that Zechariah would call himself “old” while softening the age of his dear spouse by saying that she was “getting on in years”? Or were these just the careful words of a spouse?
Mind you, “old” in the time of the Roman Empire during the rule of King Herod, was chronologically younger than “old” in our day and time. Our Life expectancy doubled during the one hundred years alone. Elizabeth becomes pregnant a few verses later, a clue that she wasn’t close to the age that we associate with being “old”! Regardless of their chronological age, their years of experience when compared with others in their day, was significant enough to mention.
Maybe it was because of the fact that John’s parents were “getting on” in years that we are able to more fully understand God’s ability and desire to overturn the impossible and bring new life into the world. Yes, Zechariah experienced muteness. Yes, Elizabeth was in seclusion for five months. But when, in her sixth month of pregnancy, teen-age cousin Mary visits, Elizabeth experiences joy as her unborn son leaps in her womb and she realizes the fulfillment of God’s word. A little later, Zechariah’s prophecy following his son’s circumcision is Spirit-filled indeed.
So what is the message of the biblical narrative for those of us getting on in years in this season of Advent? Could Zechariah’s words describing the ages that he and Elizabeth had lived, help us to consider how we use language to shape our own perceptions and see the gifts that come as we continue to see the years pass by? Or does our own cultural bias against older adults distance us from message of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s faithfulness? Ashton Applewhite suggests in a 2015 blog post that we need to change our language about aging and how we talk about getting older. She suggests that language is what will help us overturn our bias against aging and those who are advanced in years.
What if we talked about how our congregations are age-full rather than referring to them as being “old”? Or what would happen if, in the spirit of taking pride in who we are, we planned Age Pride Sundays, or Age Pride Parades even? As Applewhite points out, “Longevity is here to stay. Everyone is aging. Ending ageism benefits us all.”
As a part of a leadership training project, Amy Gorely coined a phrase that could help us all better understand the power of the experience that comes with the adding up of years: Be Bold. Claim Old. If we can be bold enough to claim our aging as a gift of life itself, we too can perhaps see the possible rise up through the impossible. And if we can’t actually admit that we are “old”, then perhaps we could try Zechariah’s alternative: “I’m getting on in years”. Again, not as an excuse to not do something, but as a declaration of understanding that aging is a process which continues to unfold opening us again and again to God’s love.
As we move through this season of Advent and Christmas and head into the new calendar year, may we find ways to celebrate that we are all “getting on in years”! May we resolve to rethink our attitude toward our own aging process. And may we find the courage in the midst of our collective narrative to notice the many ways in which God continues to break in to our impossible lives to create joy that cannot be ignored—regardless of how many years we have seen!
Rev. Beth Long-Higgins serves as Director of Outreach and Mission Integration at United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, a member organization of the United Church of Christ Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.