Image: Mary and Baby by Liz Lemon Swindle
Christmas is coming. We are in the season of advent, a time of waiting. Advent is the story of women. It is the story of infertility, long awaited hopes, unplanned pregnancy, miracles, labor, birth, redemption, and new life. And this story of women is the story of Christianity, of waiting for the Messiah, and waiting for redemption.
The story of advent begins with Elizabeth, a woman who has been unable to conceive throughout her life, and is beyond her child bearing years. Her experience of infertility, and the disappointment of being unable to conceive is uniquely feminine. She lives the story and struggle that only a woman can know. Then God steps into her world.
Elizabeth becomes pregnant in her old age, and gives birth to the one who will restore the hearts of Israel, and usher in the ministry of the Messiah.
When Elizabeth is six months pregnant, the angel Gabriel visits her relative Mary, and tells Mary of her own coming child, who “will be called the Son of the Most High.”
In contrast to Elizabeth, rather than being old and unable to conceive, Mary is young, and unmarried. She is a virgin, and the miracle of her pregnancy is even more astonishing than that of Elizabeth’s. It is something that can only be accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Elizabeth together represent the full range of womanhood, from the young virgin, to the woman well past her childbearing years. And God calls them both into the center of the greatest moment yet in redemption history.
Being unmarried, and pregnant in a patriarchal society, Mary is at great risk. She hurries to the home of her relative, Elizabeth, possibly for safety, and probably because Elizabeth is the only person on earth who has any understanding of Mary’s experience. A young, unmarried, pregnant woman seeks comfort and safety in the home of an older pregnant woman relative. Upon seeing Mary, Elizabeth becomes filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesies over Mary and her baby. Then Mary glorifies the Lord, in what has become one of the most ancient of Christian hymns.
Mary’s story continues as she travels with her heavily pregnant body to Bethlehem for the census, along with Joseph. She travels from Nazareth to Bethlehem, about 70 miles, a long and tedious journey in the last months of pregnancy. Then, while she is in Bethlehem, her labor begins. Labor begins with a contraction, then another. They increase in intensity. Eventually her contractions come one after another, as her body leads her to push out her child.
Many times in scripture, the image of labor pain is used to describe the coming of the Messiah. In Romans 8:22, Paul writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
The entire experience of God’s people is represented in the feminine experience of labor and child birth. Mary groaned as she brought the Messiah into the world, Emmanuel, God with us, the one who would redeem our souls. All creation groans as we wait for the Messiah to return fully to the world, the one who will redeem all creation.
In Genesis 3, at the beginning of the human story, we see the world fall from grace when the first people disobey God’s command at the bidding of the serpent. To the woman, God says,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
These are the results of the fall. The struggle of the woman, her pain, and oppression represents the brokenness of the whole world. But eventually, the labor pains will end. Oppression will end. Brokenness will end. Just as both Mary and Elizabeth come through labor, and feel the relief of birth, and the joy of holding a new baby, the pains of this world will pass. We will feel the joy and relief of Christ’s return, as new life comes to all of creation.
As we wait expectantly this advent, let’s remember the stories of our sisters, Elizabeth and Mary. Let’s remember their uniquely feminine experiences, and reflect on the way God has chosen the feminine to represent the work of redemption that God is doing in the world.