I’ve dusted off this post to participate in Rachel Held Evans’ week of mutuality. Rachel has invited writers to contribute posts that contribute to the topic of mutuality. A few years ago, when I researched my unpublished work A Nativity of Misfits I became impressed with how intentionally God involved women in the events leading up to the incarnation. Here are some out takes from the chapter, reorganized into a blog post.
If the medium is the message then it means something that God included women as participants in the incarnation.
It’s obvious that God needed an available uterus to pull off the Incarnation. Only a sinless human could break sin’s power. Hatching Jesus from a giant egg or parachuting him from Heaven would have demonstrated more panache on God’s part. However, Jesus would have been something less than human. Our savior’s life needed to begin in the womb.
Mary is the most famous female in the infancy narrative. She obediently submitted to the will of God and gestated. Mary suffered all the indignities of pregnancy. Her teenaged waistline ballooned. She waddled down the streets Nazareth as she did her chores. Jesus pressed against her bladder forcing frequent stops to relieve herself. Mary suffered fatigue and napped often. She might have suffered morning sickness and constipation as her hormones transformed her body into a living incubator. Mary’s agreeing to “let it be done” to her was noble and self-sacrificing. But being a surrogate is not the same thing as being an equal.
If we stopped our investigation of women and the Incarnation here, we’d view women as the gift box that Jesus came in and not recipients of the gift themselves. We’d have the story of a man-child who was born to lead a movement of men. Christmas, at this level of investigation, simply reinforces what we suspected all along: Christianity is a man’s game. Women are simply involved out of biological necessity.
But if we press on and look at the narratives more closely we see that Mary’s role is bigger than that of baby-mama. Gabriel appeared to Mary first, before involving her fiancé or clergy. Luke’s gospel contrasts the faith of Mary and Elizabeth against that of inferior belief of Zechariah and Joseph. The archangel appeared to these men and found their message rejected. Mary and Elizabeth, however, respond by accepting a prophetic role. This is exactly what the prophet Joel prophesied:
“And it shall come to pass afterward,
That I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
Your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
In those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
Joel 2:28-30 [ESV]
Joel understood that as God’s kingdom was established on earth, the division between men and women— introduced at the Fall– would begin to be reversed. God created Adam and Eve to share a beautiful and intimate partnership. Adam was made in the image of God and Eve was made from Adam’s rib; so the only way God’s image can be completely expressed in humanity is when men and women live in partnership. But sin destroyed this harmony. When God told Eve that “her desires would be against those of her husband, but that he would rule over her.”—God was describing the effects of sin. God wasn’t describing the way life should be lived, but how sin was warped every relationship. This is not a minor point. The goal of the Christian Story is that everything gets redeemed to its pre-Fall condition. So, if you read Genesis chapters 1-2 with the understanding that women were designed to live hierarchically under men then you’d see patriarchal societies as being glimpses of Eden. The women’s equal rights movement, and women in the workplace and behind the pulpit would be viewed as consequences of paradise lost. When everything is reconciled, women would keep these subjected roles. However, if you see the division between men and women as a result of the Fall, then you’d expect to see the dignity and worth of women expanded when the long awaited savior interrupted human history and established the New Humanity.
This is exactly what we see in the months leading up to the Incarnation. When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, Luke writes that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Her own impossible child began to respond to the presence of the unborn Messiah and started kick vigorously. With the help of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth discerned what was going on—her cousin Mary was pregnant with the Messiah. Elizabeth, then, blessed and affirmed Mary’s wisdom for faithfully responding to Gabriel’s visions.
Elizabeth’s prophesy took a burden off of Mary. Mary no longer had to keep her pregnancy a secret during her extended stay (although that secret would have had to be revealed soon enough). Mary was also relieved of having to convincing Elizabeth that she’s mother to the Most-Important-Child-in-the-History-of-Civilization. This freedom allowed Mary to make a prophecy of her own. Her son, Jesus, was God’s answer to Israel’s plight. Jesus is God’s demonstration of strength. He was the one who’d scatter the proud power brokers and provide provision to the poor.
An alert skeptic might notice that Mary and Elizabeth traded their prophecies in the privacy of Elizabeth’s home. There were no witnesses and no accountability (and no men to suffer the indignity of being under their prophetic authority). A cynic could argue that these words were attributed to the women after the fact. But the same accusations couldn’t be leveled against another prophetess, Anna. We meet Anna in Luke 2:36-38. She is an eighty-four year old prophetess who committed herself the worship of God after her husband passed away. Her marriage had only lasted a short seven years. The widow went to the temple courts each day, worshipping, fasting, and praying. She was only allowed in the temple as far as the Women’s Court. Only Hebrew men could enter into the courts closer to the Holy of Holies. However, when the eight day old Jesus was presented at the temple, she, along with an ancient priest Simon, recognized the baby for who he was.
Luke writes that Anna began to publically praise God. Anna apparently had built a small following of citizens who she taught to wait for the redemption of Jerusalem. Anna informed them that this Jesus was the object of all their hopes. This child would make things right.
Scholars tell us that all the prophesying going on was a signal that God was doing something different and important. Angels and women announced that the child Jesus was the Messiah. The fact that God positioned women into the office of prophet, even momentarily in the case of Mary and Elizabeth, was a signal that Jesus was the savior for all people and not merely the men. For a brief moment, these women were liberated from chauvinism and the patriarchal culture they were born into. For a brief moment, these women were simply God’s image bearers and communicators of God’s message. In the same way that the Pentecost foreshadowed that God was going to reverse the curse at Babel, Luke 2 foreshadows that Jesus came to reverse the all the effects of the Curse that occurred at the garden of Eden, namely the division between men and women.
Two thousand years later we still wait for this gift to be redeemed from layaway.