This is the first of a four part series for advent focusing on the Women of Christmas.
There are three women right at the heart of the Christmas story. This should not be noteworthy because there are, in fact, women at the heart of every story. Unfortunately the storytellers, especially the historytellers often leave women out of the story altogether. A glance at the genealogies of Jesus reveals how the writers focus on the male line as if the son of a male ancestor tells the complete story.
But the Christmas story, which now seems so traditional, was, and is, a tradition breaker and, in this respect also, is true to form.
The three women in order of appearance are named Elizabeth, Mary and Anna. Their individual stories deserve attention and will get it but let’s start with them altogether.
One of them, Elizabeth, is married and middle aged. Mary is a young unmarried girl and Anna is an eighty-four year old widow. These three women are at different seasons of their lives, Mary in the spring, Elizabeth in autumn and Anna in winter. One is longing for a child and feeling ashamed, wrongly, that she has been unable to conceive. Mary is definitely not wanting a child yet and Anna is likely to have settled the matter some years prior.
There are some not so subtle hints in the story of the challenges they all faced. Anna, married for seven years, then a widow for the rest of her life, would have known loneliness, perhaps poverty, but certainly difficulty. Elizabeth would have endured the stigma associated with childlessness which was woven into the culture of their day. Childlessness was even considered good grounds for divorce. Mary, as her story unfolded, would have had to endure the scandal associated with conceiving a child as an unmarried woman.
All of them would have experienced the discrimination of being treated as second class simply because of their gender. Girls were not allowed to be educated as boys, the inheritance laws favoured the male line and it was hard to earn a living separate from a man. Women were not considered as reliable legal witnesses.
Two of them were looking for blessing, Mary was just looking for an ordinary life, but their casting as central characters in the Christmas drama reveals how honour, purpose, blessing and glory came to them.
Truths tumble out of the narrative. Immediately you can see that, no matter what season of life you are in, you are not finished or, more accurately, God has not finished with you.
Today, in the west at least, we do not measure success so much in terms of reproductivity. We have other means, tending towards the idea of productivity.
Christmas, in these women, shows you how you can be surprised by joy at any and every season of your life in widely varying circumstances.
Perhaps, especially for some male readers, this is not such a big deal, although I suspect it is bigger than we admit. But it is still true that for women, they are more aware of the passing of time, the clock ticking, the clarity fading. In a visual culture women become troubled by ageing itself as gender bias and age bias combine.
Have you noticed how news readers and TV presenters look these days? The men grey, mature, develop. The women are often replaced with younger models. If some women were as unkempt as their male counterparts they would be fired.
So the fact that these women are all affirmed speaks of a value system revolutionary, then and now.
Look again and you can see how they affirmed each other. Elizabeth and Mary were related. Mary went to stay with Elizabeth for three months as they supported each other. Uniquely positioned to understand each other they drew on their shared experiences as well as their generational differences to comfort and strengthen each other. By the time Anna joins the story Mary, as a young mother with an eight day old child would have drawn enormous encouragement from an old, wise, spiritual prophetess pronouncing words of confirmation into her soul.
Even though Mary was a woman of faith, she would naturally have her moments of confusion about her own circumstances. As Elizabeth first, then Anna later, affirmed her she would draw great strength from those in different seasons.
Last in my initial observations is this. I have mentioned that women were not considered reliable witnesses in the legal system. These three women were commissioned to be witnesses to the greatest story ever told. God becoming a baby, with all its surrounding dramas, plays out through the lives and words of these strong women of faith.
Can you take this to work this week? Consider what work season you are in. God will still commission you to play your part, whatever your age.
When you face the challenges of your season, seek to connect with others who can support you, advise you, affirm you.
Perhaps most obvious of all, recognize that in the Christmas story there is a great honour paid to these women. As you recognize this, I suggest it should call us all to review how we honour women in our workplaces, as characters in our stories, as leaders in the community of work and faith. In a world that still has a tendency to write women off, Christmas writes them in.
1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us,
40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
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