Considering how crucial women are to the Advent period and Christmas, it is wonderful to remember anew their example of faithful expectation; and their insights about what the coming baby represented. Christmas celebrates the bold faithfulness of lowly women – a teenage girl and an older woman.
Elizabeth is introduced at the beginning of Luke’s narrative as a woman who had a heritage – descended from Aaron – and who has stayed true to that heritage. We are told that she and her husband Zachariah are ‘good people who pleased God by obeying all that he had commanded’.
Elizabeth means ‘God is abundance’, which must have seemed hurtfully ironic to her on occasions, as she could be not be abundant in the way that was so important for women – she had no children.
Luke tells us she was barren, though of course we do not know who was responsible for the childlessness.
[Throughout history, women have been blamed and shamed for not having children, particularly sons. When I was in Pakistan earlier this year talking with pastors and their wives, it was a surprise to many of them that a man may be the reason there are no children and that it is a man’s sperm that decides the sex of the baby.]
Yet, Elizabeth is filled with faith in her older years when, beyond the natural age for child-bearing, she finds out that an angel has proclaimed she will have a baby.
There is a tantalising lack of detail in Luke’s account – what does she think when her husband, Zachariah returns from temple duties not able to speak! How does he explain what’s going on?
All Luke tells us is that soon after he gets home, Elizabeth is pregnant.
Her personal response is at first very natural – “What the Lord has done for me will keep people from looking down on me.”
You can feel the hurt dissipate – all those years of waiting and patient faith in the face of social mockery and gossip – now changed because she is pregnant with a son.
But beyond her sense of personal vindication, she knows that her baby will be a part of God’s bigger story. God’s miraculous action to give Elizabeth and Zachariah a son goes to the heart of our human condition. The son is named John by the angel – which means God has been gracious.
When Elizabeth meets her much younger cousin Mary about five months later, she is able to share in Mary’s strange joy and nervousness like no other person. They wonder together at the miracles which they carry.
Mary’s song is well known but Elizabeth’s words are just as bold (Luke says she speaks in a loud voice). She must have encouraged her young cousin with her affirmation, “God has blessed you more than any other woman…as soon as I heard your greeting, my baby became happy and moved within me. The Lord has blessed you because to believed that He will keep his promise.”
What affirming words for a teenage girl who is pregnant outside marriage, from a woman who knows a bit about being an outcast. I think Raphael’s painting, ‘The Visitation’ depicts the sisterly companionship as well as the spiritual significance – in the background you can see John baptising Jesus with God hovering above.
Elizabeth’s son, John will one day proclaim the year of the Lord – God’s gracious and amazing plan to bring salvation through Jesus, Mary’s son.
And that is why the inner lives of the women have much to reveal of God’s abundance and gracious blessing. Christmas contains good news that we can easily understand and value – sons born – but we also rejoice that out of deep longing and willingness to believe, two ordinary women are part of God’s salvation mystery.