The importance of women in the Church

19 December, 2021 4th Sunday Advent, Year C

Fresh from her encounter with the angel Gabriel, “Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country” to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was herself bursting with pregnancy in her old age. This meeting of two Spirit-filled pregnant women, seeking to understand what God is doing in their lives, is remarkable in the way it captures their very human interaction along with their prophetic voices.

In Scriptural terms, all this occurs with the highly unusual absence of male voices in the conversation.

Although the meeting occurs in Zechariah’s house, he had been struck dumb. Joseph is presumably back in Nazareth. For the most part, we can only imagine the conversations between Elizabeth and Mary as they share their joy and confusion in the unforeseen events.

Elizabeth no doubt had long resigned herself to being childless, but now has to deal with her unexpected blessing. Mary has to come to terms with a blessing that seems to cause more problems than it solves. How will she explain her pregnancy to Joseph?

In Luke’s account, the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary is presented in the form of two scriptural hymns or songs of blessing. Today we hear the first of these, which is Elizabeth’s song prophetically proclaiming Mary to be the “mother of my Lord”. Even though filled with joy in her own blessing of pregnancy, Elizabeth exudes humility, compassion and living faith by focussing on the blessing that Mary’s presence is for her – and that Mary’s child will be for the world.

Mary’s response to Elizabeth is the second song – the ‘Magnificat’ – which proclaims God’s redeeming love for the oppressed and downtrodden people of our world. Together then, Elizabeth and Mary are presented to us as two Spirit-filled, peasant women prophets supporting each other in adversity by singing of God’s justice and mercy.

In doing so, they stand in the long Jewish tradition of female voices – Miriam with her tambourine, Deborah, Hannah and Judith – who likewise sing provocative songs of God’s coming salvation for the poor and oppressed.

Although the Visitation has been used to depict such lofty themes as the Church’s march throughout history crossing mountains to proclaim Christ to the world (St Ambrose 4th century), we also do well to recognise how the story highlights the role of women throughout Luke’s Gospel. They are not only major figures associated with Jesus’ birth, but they are clearly friends and disciples of Jesus during his ministry, are present at the crucifixion, and are the first to encounter the risen Lord.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us ask for the gift of being open to the surprise of grace in our own lives in the ways of Mary and Elizabeth. May we, like them, sing of God’s transforming power coming to life in the birth of the Messiah. Perhaps too we are invited to highlight the importance of women’s ministry in ‘giving birth’ to a less clerical church!

Gerard Hall SM

© Majellan Media 2021