Mary’s pregnancy wasn’t the only good news of the months leading up to the birth of Christ. There was another miracle happening in the family, in the womb of an old woman called Elizabeth. A relative of Mary’s, Elizabeth’s son would grow up to be John the Baptist, a wild prophet haunting the wilderness and declaring the coming of the Lord. And when Mary receives her angelic visitation, it’s Elizabeth she goes to see, it’s Elizabeth who is one of the first to hear the news. The old woman and the virgin rejoice together and swap patterns for baby clothes and complain about back ache and swollen ankles and the lack of understanding coming from their men.
Mary met Gabriel in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Luke 1:26), and then immediately went to stay in Judea for three months (Luke 1:56); could she have been in town when John was born? The way the verses break down makes it sound like Mary goes home before the birth, but wouldn’t it make sense for her to be around to help?
Either way, maybe there’s some solidarity going on here; both women are supernaturally pregnant, and while they’re faithful with it all, it’s hard to imagine they got a lot of support from the rest of the family. After all, no-one seems entirely clear what’s going on. Zechariah’s lack of belief loses him the power of speech; Joseph needs a visit from Gabriel to set him straight. Maybe Mary and Elizabeth need to spend time together because they’re the only people who understand what’s going on. As women in a patriarchal society, it’s likely they would have been dismissed and patronised during this period of waiting, but it’s worth noting that the only ‘man’ who seems clued in from the beginning is John, and he hasn’t even been born yet.
But eventually the day of John’s birth arrives, and a crowd shows up to name and circumcise the boy. And this is where the mansplaining seems to start, because despite Elizabeth insisting that God told her that the boy was to be named John, the crowd that dismisses her is determined to name the child after his father. Elizabeth must have been fairly insistent though, because they eventually ask Zechariah what he wants to call his son.
This is a whole other can of worms, because they make signs to get Zechariah to write down his wishes, even though we’re never told that he’s deaf, only that he can’t speak. Despite them being at the centre of God’s great plan for that first Christmas, both Elizabeth and Zechariah are patronised and dismissed. It’s only when Zechariah announces that “His name is John!”, and thus receiving the gift of speech again, that people seem to accept what the couple is saying.
That’s typical, isn’t it? Zechariah is silenced by God, but Elizabeth is silenced by everyone else. And while it would be nice to put this down to the patriarchal nature of the ancient world, you’ve only got to spend a few hours on Twitter to see women silenced or abused or dismissed. This isn’t just ignorance or rudeness; in some quarters it’s policy. In others it’s a survival strategy employed by a crumbling power structure. Elizabeth’s opinions on her son’s name didn’t matter, even though she was speaking on behalf of God; women theologians’ expertise on the Bible doesn’t matter because they’re not men; sexual abuse survivors don’t matter because, well, they should have spoken out sooner. Bureaucracy doesn’t consider sanitary towels a basic human need for half the population, or think about the impact of that on health or education. Lots of people have recently written about the emerging political power of black women, but we’d’ve be spared a lot of trouble if we’d listened to them in the first place.
But no; there are so many ways to try and silence half of the population. And when many of those voices are shouting from the margins and through the windows of locked rooms, we’re ignoring cries for justice, for mercy. We’re ignoring wisdom and may even be ignoring prophecy.
I’m glad I’m involved with a church tradition that has women in leadership. I’m fortunate to have learned so much from the theologian who led my preaching course and her no-nonsense confidence in her work. I’m thankful for the wisdom and intelligence and compassion of my wife. Because without these voices, I’d be less of a Christian, and the Church would be less of, well, a Church. Back in that first advent, as the world behind the world began to tremble, the voices of Mary and Elizabeth were eventually heard and valued. We need to do the same today.