I like to start small group discussions with a good icebreaker or two. You can learn so much about a person by their answers to such questions as, “If you could bathe in a vat of any food or drink item, what would you choose?” or “What is the one gift you’ll never forget receiving?” For the record, my answers are tapioca and eighteenth-century copies of the works of Shakespeare that my father proudly announced he’d fished out of a thrift-store dumpster.1
But on every icebreaker list I’ve ever seen, a question appears that never fails to baffle me: “If you could live at any time or place in history, when and where would it be?” This question had to have been conceived by a man, because, honestly, for a woman there aren’t a whole lot of appealing options. Virtually every culture has had its distinct challenges in this regard. There’s been foot-binding, bride-burning, functional house arrest, and that ingenious device of torture called the corset. There’s rape as a weapon of war and a one-in-five chance of death in childbirth in medieval Europe, and in nearly every time and place a woman has had a better chance of being abused by her husband than of learning how to read. In the last few decades alone, more than 160 million girls have been aborted for no crime but their gender, and in the United States today, the beacon of equality, between a third and half of teenage girls have been victims of dating violence. Where would I choose to live? How about none of the above?
Unfortunately, for many women, reading the first two-thirds of the book Jews and Christians share as “holy” Scripture reinforces the sense that there truly is no place of safety. Respected heroes of faith trade their wives for riches and protection. Fathers sacrifice their daughters as part of bargains with God. Masters cut up their concubines to make a point. Basic bodily functions make women unclean and unfit for the house of God. All sixteen prophetic books record the oracles of men despite the known existence of qualified female prophets. God is even referred to as the “God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” as if the faith of the mothers—Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel—were not worth mentioning (see Acts 3:13).
It’s not only moderns who pick up on this pattern. According to an ancient Jewish tradition, the three blessings a Jewish man was to say every day included, “Blessed are you, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a woman.”2 The logic underlying such a blessing seemed self-evident in its time: women were weaker, vessels of sin, vulnerable to deception, and unable to follow God’s law as completely as their male counterparts.
The Jewish world of the first century was not so different in this regard than any other place, before or since. Between twelve and fourteen years of age, girls were transferred from the authority of a father to the authority of a husband. Their days were almost uniformly filled with grinding grain, milking goats, and carrying water. Although women could technically inherit property, every male heir had precedence, and their husbands controlled whatever they gained. Husbands could divorce their wives for as small an offense as burning dinner, whereas wives had no recourse to divorce at all.3 A woman without a male protector was without rights or livelihood, leaving many widows in dire poverty.
Jewish boys learned to read and write around age five and studied Torah, Jewish law, with a rabbi from ten to eighteen. The subject of women’s education was, however, a source of ongoing debate, the fear being that women might use their knowledge to deceive their husbands and get away with sin.4 Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who taught around the time of Jesus, proclaimed, “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to a woman.”5 Women could not worship in the inner courts of the temple or enter the most holy place where God was said to dwell. Women were forbidden to speak to a man they didn’t know, and oral law held that a man who even greeted a woman publicly brought evil on himself. Women were barred from public speaking and any form of leadership. In court, their testimony was considered unreliable.6
This is the world of a child-bride named Mary who can be killed if her virginity is even called into question. This is the world of an elderly wife named Elizabeth who lives as a pariah because she has failed at her life’s one essential purpose: providing her husband with an heir. And this is the world the meeting of these two women rocks like a holy cataclysm, reshaping the landscape forever.
“Greetings, highly favored one!” the angel greets Mary. “Why am I so favored?” Elizabeth exclaims. Favored by God, both of these women. How can this be? These are two of the people many thank God daily they are not—the inroads to sin, the unchosen sex. Yet God has singled them out among all possible people and graced them in a way that a whole history of patriarchs, priests, prophets, and kings never even began to imagine.
The Holy Spirit, we’re told, has come upon Mary and now fills Elizabeth up. These are two of the people not permitted to serve in the temple, not even allowed to approach near the place the Spirit dwells. Yet they themselves have now become the Spirit’s dwelling place.
Elizabeth exclaims loudly, and Mary composes poetry. These are two of the people not taught to write and forbidden public speech. Yet with Elizabeth’s husband struck mute by God and Mary’s father and fiancé left out of the loop, these women will have the privilege of opening their mouths and narrating the most important event in human history.
Elizabeth and then Mary begin to prophesy. That is what you call it in Israel when the Spirit fills someone and prompts them to declare the truth of God. These are two of the people whose prophetic insights are totally absent from religious records. Yet they are now the first to identify God in human flesh and to put on record God’s vision for the world.
The rabbis have refused to trust them with the wisdom of the Torah, yet God has chosen to trust them with the wisdom of the Savior. After centuries of being omitted from the roll call of the faithful, Mary is blessed because she has believed when the more “qualified” have not. These two women, not accepted as witnesses in court, are the first—and for a time, the only—witnesses to Christ’s coming. For three crucial months, God’s greatest secret, the plan of salvation, the mystery of the redemption of the world, is held in the confidence of women.
Mary, in her wisdom, quickly recognizes that she and Elizabeth are not simply a few rare, lucky exceptions to the overwhelming tide of history. What is occurring is so much bigger than just the two of them, than even the question of the role and worth of gender. Mary and Elizabeth give birth not merely to two babies but to a whole new world—a new world that plays by a fundamentally different set of rules from the old one.
The infancy stories are vital to the full scriptural witness, not just because they tell us interesting facts about how Jesus came but because they are themselves a mini-gospel. Students are taught in school that the first paragraph of a paper should be an introduction with a thesis statement that lays out from the start what the central point will be. The Christmas story is the gospel’s introductory paragraph, and Mary’s song is its thesis statement. It tells us from the beginning exactly where this story is going. It introduces God’s essential agenda for the world that will be spelled out in detail in her baby’s grown-up life.
When Elizabeth and Mary see each other’s swelling stomachs and hear each other’s stories, they recognize immediately that what has happened to them is not a fluke but the beginning of a new reality. In these two overlooked and underestimated women, God’s agenda for the world has been revealed. Mary is the first to recognize and declare it: God has come to turn the world inside out. God is favoring those the world has not favored. God is choosing those the world has not chosen. God is remembering those the world has forgotten. Those who through most of history have glutted themselves on power, on riches, on violence, and most of all on their exclusive possession of God are officially losing their license. God will speak through those who have been silenced. God will work through those who have been dismissed. God will dwell in those who have been shut out of the official systems. God will reveal truth to those least expected to know it. God will move out of the temple, out of the palace, out of the corner office and into women’s kitchens and forgotten field hands’ caves. In Israel and every nation, God is raising the humble, showing them mercy, doing such great things for them and through them that even those who most resist will not be able to help crying out, “Blessed is she!” (Luke 1:45).
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the good news he came to bring. Elizabeth and Mary, precisely because they exist on the bottom rung of history, are able to see it most clearly. Even here, barely past the moment of conception, when Jesus is taking shape inside the womb, already they feel their chains dropping off, their heads being lifted, their mouths being opened, and they know a new world is forming. Redemption is being born in the forgotten corners. God is moving to the margins of the world. And God is calling the outcasts to leading roles.
I wonder what would change if we really believed, if we really understood that what we celebrate at Christmas is not merely the birth of a baby but a new world where the center of power is on the margins. Would we be more bold, more confident in our worth and in God’s desire to use us? I think of the many years I spent agonizing over all the reasons God couldn’t or wouldn’t use me—my gender, my age, my marital status, my personality, my personal weaknesses. Most of us, I imagine, have our own list of reasons it couldn’t be us who God would want. I think of all the time we spend doubting together whether God could use our own churches or communities—we’re too old, too poor, too bashful, too tired, too busy, too rural, too urban, too small.
To all these ways of thinking the Christmas story says, “Nonsense. You’re thinking with the logic of the old world, forgetting you’re living in the new one. Do you feel disqualified by every human standard? Great—you’re the one God wants to use. Do you feel like you live on the edge of the world? Great—that’s where God is living too. God’s kingdom isn’t coming from the center out; it’s coming from the margins in.”
I also wonder whether if we really believed this, we’d be more humble, more open to the voices we’re so quick to tune out. Would we ask what the immigrant church has to teach us? Would we spend more time listening to the words of that elderly woman in the nursing home? Would we take our youth more seriously when they question our habits and methods? Would we spend less time looking for God inside the church, among the so-called experts, and more time searching for God on the suffering margins of our communities? Because if there’s one thing the Christmas story teaches us for certain, it’s that that is where God is to be found.
After two thousand years of telling it, it’s astonishing how little we Christians have grasped the implications of our own story. We are still looking for God in the wrong places. We are still discounting the wrong sorts of people. We are still disqualifying ourselves for the wrong reasons. But God is also still here, living on the margins, lifting up the humble, looking for a people who will embrace the new world. God is still here, longing to do great things for those who never imagined they’d be part of the story. God is still here, seeking fathers of faith and mothers of salvation. Blessed is she, or he, who believes God will do exactly as God has promised.
- This meditation has been adapted from a sermon given at Albany Mennonite Church on December 9, 2012.
- See t. Ber. 6:18, trans. Eliyahu Touger, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Tefilah II and Birkat Kohanim (New York, NY: Moznaim, 1989), http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/920169/jewish/Tefilah-and-Birkat-Kohanim-Chapter-Seven.htm.
- This practice, allowed by the Hillelite school, was disputed by the Shammaite.
- See b. Sotah 21a and 21b. For a more detailed discussion of women’s education, see Rachel Keren, “Torah Study,” in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Paula E. Hyman and Dalia Ofer (Brookline, MA: Jewish Women’s Archive, 2009), https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/torah-study.
- y. Sotah 3:4 and 19a. Note that the rabbis were not in full agreement on this subject and continued to debate for centuries the extent to which women should be taught the commandments.
- m. Ned. 11:10.