by Beth Ludlum
The events surrounding Jesus’s birth are filled with proclamations, exclamations, and predictions. But what I find more interesting to the story is whose voices are heard and how they are heard.
As Luke tells it, the story of Jesus begins, in part, with two very different women. Our introduction to Elizabeth includes just a few details: she’s from one of the oldest and most respected families in Judaism, she’s married to a priest, she’s righteous, she’s getting kind of old…and she’s barren. This last fact is clearly the black mark on an otherwise spotless biography, but it tells us a lot about Elizabeth. After all, infertility was understood to be the woman’s problem and was often seen as a curse from God. In spite of her prayers, Elizabeth has had to find meaning in life and learn to remain faithful to God even though her primary longing, her understood purpose, and her hope for the future has been left unfulfilled. How many derisive stares or side comments have been directed her way? How many times has she watched other women’s children play and laugh, wondering why God denied her this basic gift?
So when the story tells us that she finally becomes pregnant, in spite of the natural laws of human aging and reproductive ability, we can only imagine her ecstasy. If I were Elizabeth, I would be quite tempted to stock up on bumper stickers with sayings like, “Your kid may be on the honor role, but mine got an angelic prophecy.”
The other woman introduced early in Luke’s narrative is Mary, a relative of Elizabeth but different in almost every way. Mary is young rather than old, immature rather than wise, recently engaged rather than long attached, from a backwater town rather than of noble heritage. And although both are pregnant, the circumstances could hardly be more different. Mary’s pregnancy appears scandalous rather than miraculous, terrifying rather than an answer to prayer.
So when Elizabeth hears a knock on her door, about six months into her own pregnancy, and finds young Mary standing there, so many different responses are possible. She might lecture this young pregnant girl, having heard all the family gossip. She might try to impart wisdom from her own life, or remind her to be grateful because some women had to wait decades to have a child. She might be so overwhelmed with jealousy and disgust that she closes the door on Mary and tells her to find her own way. But Elizabeth does none of these things. Instead, she opens her home and her heart to Mary.
In the following verses in Luke, we glimpse a precious relationship between these two women. Elizabeth provides a space for Mary when Mary is terrified and excited and undergoing social scrutiny, and Mary accompanies Elizabeth through her last 3 months of pregnancy, when she is isolated and uncomfortable. But perhaps the most beautiful thing to me is that even in the midst of her own joy, fears, wisdom, and experience, Elizabeth makes a way for Mary to find her own voice. It is Elizabeth’s openness to what the Spirit is doing in Mary, her willingness to see this pregnant teen as even greater than herself, and her courage in speaking the truth about Mary that she knows, that opens the way for Mary to claim and name the belief that God is at work in her and through the baby she carries. Elizabeth’s welcome and encouragement makes way for one of the most beautiful, poetic proclamations in the Bible, what now has become known as the Magnificat. Elizabeth is the midwife to Mary’s confidence, her ability to name and claim God’s promises, and, I suspect, the peace that steadies her throughout Jesus’s birth and life.
Throughout my life, I have been blessed by women who have helped me claim my own voice. In the last few years, a woman named Sarah has been my rock. Strong and powerful, two decades ahead of me in her career, Sarah has nonetheless welcomed me as a friend. She has recognized and named talents in me that I never knew existed; she has shared her own fears and mistakes so that I can uncover and learn from my own; she has given me access to opportunities that I had neither the experience nor the courage to claim on my own. More than anything else, she is always watching for what God is doing in my life and is ready to walk alongside me. Through good times and challenging ones, Sarah has used her wisdom, her strength, and her faith to make space for me to grow into my own voice.
Women like Elizabeth and Sarah remind me of my own privilege and responsibilities. Especially as women, we who have the benefit of age, experience, education, status, or authority of any kind have a responsibility to make a way for the voices of the women who too often go unheard. Every step we take, every gift we are given is an opportunity to journey with and create a way for others.
Who are the women in your life whom you can accompany? Where are the college students, the single mothers, the young clergy, or the isolated executives who need a listening ear and an accompanying friend? How can you make way for others to not only follow but to surpass you? How can you listen so carefully that another finds her own voice?
When John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s son, came on the scene, his preaching drew crowds. But he never lost sight that his purpose was to make way for another’s voice. He carried on his mother’s legacy. During this Advent season, will we?
Beth is a Kansas farm girl who has made her way to Washington, DC twice via China and Nashville. An avid runner and cyclist, she loves to travel and meet new people and to be at home with her housemates and 4 year old godson. Beth is a commissioned elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and is appointed to ministry as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Wesley Theological Seminary.