I realise most eyes are now focused on the birth of a boy next weekend, but today’s gospel reminds us of the centrality of women – Elizabeth and Mary – in the Christmas narrative. Mary, whom the church traditionally honours on this fourth Sunday in Advent, stands in a line of women who go all the way back to Sarah, the mother of the Jewish nation, who became pregnant when she was a pensioner. Also in the Jewish
scriptures – our OT – it was a group of women – Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter among them – who all conspired together to prevent the infant Moses from being slaughtered. Then there was Esther, whose bravery saved the Jewish people from extermination, and the moving story of Ruth, whose love and loyalty brought back fullness of life to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi.
And on into the NT, we find the poor widow, who gave Jesus a model for generosity; the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and gave him a model of love and devotion; the Syro-Phoenician woman who challenged Jesus to confront racism; Joanna and Susanna who put their homes at Jesus’ disposal; your patron saint, Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection, and so we could go on. The great biblical stories which are central to the seasons of Advent and Christmas, with all their theological and political significance, enhance the sense of specific people being caught up in God’s drama. These people find their lives turned upside down as their hearts are gripped by God’s mysterious presence, and they discover a sense of direction to which they have no choice but to be obedient. No individuals illustrate this reality more than Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Theirs is a story of hope and of joy, of ancient longings for redemption on the part of the Hebrews, of a future that promises confidence and excitement. These two impossibly pregnant women – the barren wife of an aging priest, and an unknown virgin with no royal blood or important family connections – began a song of praise that has echoed through the centuries. Elizabeth’s baby leaps inside her, and Mary sings, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.’
I sometimes think that Mary is too often presumed to be the kind of person she probably was not. Our images of her have more to do
with Victorian statues and traditional Christmas cards than with the real woman. We have made Mary ‘mild’ – perhaps partly because the word rhymes with ‘child’! We have depicted her as eternally passive, though one read through the Magnificat, Mary’s song, soon challenges that notion. To see Mary as merely a passive, compliant woman is to underestimate, quite fundamentally, the courage, risk, determination and sheer gutsiness she exhibited all through what we know of her life. ‘He has scattered the proud
in the imagination of their hearts, cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.’
In choosing Mary, God demonstrates that all women are called to an active role in the unveiling of God’s kingdom of true justice. Mary said her ‘yes’ to becoming pregnant with the one who would turn the tables of social exclusion, tip the scales in favour of the under-privileged, touch the untouchable, love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable. Mary is nothing less than God’s deliverer to humanity. Only a woman could make it possible for God to break into the human experience, and give birth to the child we will celebrate next weekend, whose name is Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us’.
Theological and church history demonstrate the plain fact that women’s stories have often been airbrushed out of the picture. We owe a huge debt to feminist theologians who have helped to unearth them and reinstate them to their rightful place. As a male, it pains me to say that it is male-dominated cultures which have frequently ensured that women’s stories didn’t get told, or were sanitized, or were moulded to fit a particular feminine stereotype. I don’t know about you, but when I look back on those who have shaped my faith, it is often women who played the really essential roles. Not many of them are still alive, but what they did, said and lived will always stay with me. Today’s Advent gospel story reminds me of the indispensability of women in the crucial events of this coming Christmas – and all that symbolises theologically. The fourth Sunday of Advent, in particular, invites all of us to remember how much we owe to women.
And one final thought, moving from the human to the divine. In Western tradition, for most of church history, the notion of God having a
feminine side has been quite alien. God is more often perceived in terms of king, lord, or tough warrior than a nursing mother, which is why I welcome some modern liturgies which seek to broaden our understanding of the divine through using different imagery. One of the newer
Eucharistic prayers speaks of God as a mother who tenderly gathers her children. Actually, in scripture, there are both masculine and feminine connotations around the figure of God. But, perhaps most important of all is this fact. We 21st century Westerners can easily miss a point which would certainly not have been lost on 1st century Jews. That is that the Holy Spirit – the one who, in Jewish thinking, was present at
creation, and the one who brought life alive in the womb, the one we routinely refer to as ‘he’- was always, in both Hebrew and Aramaic (the languages Jesus knew) distinctly feminine. In short, from the beginning, ‘he’ was always ‘she’!