The women in Luke’s nativity: an Advent reflectionWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Most of the iconic images associated with the birth of Jesus come to us from the Gospel of Luke: the Roman census and journey to Bethlehem; the scene at the manger; the shepherds watching their flocks at night; the angel announcing the Saviour’s birth; the heavenly chorus singing glory to God and peace on earth.
But Luke is also noted for his special concern for women, both in his Gospel and in the book of Acts, and nowhere is this more evident than in his account of the Nativity. Luke goes into extensive detail about Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel, and especially about her visit with Elizabeth, as both women awaited the birth of their sons. Later he singles out Anna, an aged prophetess who witnessed Jesus being presented at the temple. And Luke’s account also marks the presence of a fourth woman, if only in spirit – Hannah, the mother of Samuel, whose song was a model for Mary’s own Magnificat.
Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, clearly saw this quartet of women as integral to the Messiah’s birth story, giving them generous space and voice in his record of it. As such, they offer an appropriate Advent reflection of their own – perhaps one woman for each week – for believers to ponder as we celebrate the coming of Jesus.
Elizabeth: forthright wife and mother of the forerunner
Being a thorough historian, Luke interweaves the birth of Jesus with that of John the Baptist, the forerunner prophesied to pave the way for the coming Messiah. The angel Gabriel first appears to Zechariah the priest, informing him that he and his wife, Elizabeth, will have a son named John, despite their advanced years. Zechariah is less than convinced and asks for some proof, at which point the angel strikes him mute for his skepticism.
The focus then shifts to Elizabeth, who unlike her husband greets the angel’s announcement with unalloyed faith and joy. “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people,” she whispers.
Overall, Elizabeth comes across as a forthright and strong woman, somewhat fiery for the middle-aged wife of a priest. She appears to have no difficulty standing her ground and speaking her mind. When those around her tried to name her baby after her husband, she responded with a direct and forceful “No; he shall be called John.” In a time when a mother’s input on naming her own child was not always required or welcome, this would have been a mic drop moment.
It would seem that her son, John, noted for his own fiery temperament, rather took after mom. While still in the womb and filled with the Holy Spirit, he leapt at the sound of the pregnant Mary’s voice, presumably in a way not typical of children in utero. Elizabeth, likewise filled with the Spirit, uttered the first recorded human pronouncement of the Messiah’s arrival – with a strident shout, according to Luke:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Mary: teenage poetic soul and mother of the Messiah
Even more than with Elizabeth, Luke takes extra effort to draw a nuanced, human portrait of Mary – one that’s distinct from the way she often appears in art and public imagination. In Luke’s Nativity account, Mary is a young girl, likely in her mid-to-late teens. She’s devout and humble, but also bright and inquisitive, with an enthusiasm for whatever God has in store for her.
When the angel Gabriel appears to her and explains her role in the birth of the Son of God, she doesn’t fully understand – how could she, after all? Even so, she trusts the divine messenger and his message.
“How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary asks the angel. But her question doesn’t betray anything of Zechariah’s guarded doubt, asking for further proof. Rather it’s an expression of her faith seeking understanding, touched by a sense of awe and wonder. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord,” the young woman concludes, “let it be to me according to your word.”
It’s not clear whether Mary rushed off to see Elizabeth out of sheer joy at what God was doing in each of their lives, or to seek comfort with an older woman who could relate to her condition. Likely it was both. In any event, the three-month visit between these two women, sharing their unique experience of a miraculous pregnancy, is one of the most sublime and grounded episodes in the Gospels – all the more for being written at a time when women’s voices were not especially valued in the wider culture.
Mary’s voice, in particular, had a poetic strain to match her youthful sense of inquiry and wonder. After Elizabeth’s Spirit-filled outcry about the Messianic baby in her womb, Mary responded with her own spontaneous song of praise, known as the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
It’s evident that Mary had a sense of her place in history, as the final step in the fulfillment of God’s promise to send his Messiah into the world. Nevertheless, she continued to hold this knowledge with a sense of humility and amazement, as Luke notes on more than one occasion: “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
Hannah: Mary’s model for song and praise
Hannah, of course, was not physically present during the Nativity, having lived more than a thousand years earlier. However, the spirit of her faith and art, as expressed in her song of praise at the birth of her son, Samuel, is on display in Mary’s Magnificat. Although separated by a millennium, the two poems share a remarkable series of parallels in thought and word:
Hannah: “My heart
exults in the Lord . . . I rejoice in your salvation.”
Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
Hannah: “There is none
holy like the Lord.”
Mary: “Holy is his name.”
Hannah: “The bows of
the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength.”
Mary: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.”
Hannah: “Those who
were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have
ceased to hunger.”
Mary: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
As a godly young Jewish woman, Mary would have been steeped in the Scriptures for as long as she could remember. No doubt Hannah and the other women of the Old Testament would have been her spiritual heroes. Mary’s Magnificat, while spontaneous and original, would have naturally been inspired by the song of Hannah, in whose story Mary would have seen a clear reflection of her own.
Indeed, the experiences of both Mary and Elizabeth have strong parallels with that of Hannah. All three women gave birth as a result of direct divine agency, to a son who would play a crucial role in God’s redemptive plan. Hannah and Elizabeth were both barren and prayed earnestly for a child. Mary, on the other hand, was a virgin for whom childbirth may not have been an immediate concern, but who had been given the unimaginable privilege of bringing God’s own Son into the world. The stories of all three women illustrate what the angel said to Mary at the outset: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
Anna: elderly prophetess and proto-evangelist
In his account of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple, Luke turns his attention to Anna – whose name, incidentally, is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Hannah. Luke describes her as an elderly widow of eighty-four who had been married for seven short years as a young woman.
He also calls her a prophetess, making her one of a select group of women so named in the Scriptures. In the spirit of the prophets of old, Anna pursues a radical lifestyle devoted to fasting, prayer and constant worship, essentially living at the temple in Jerusalem.
Unlike the priestly and royal lineages of Elizabeth and Mary, Anna is from the tribe of Asher, one of the smallest, remotest and least significant tribes in Israel. Located at the northwest limit of Israel’s territory, Asher bordered the Phoenician lands on the Mediterranean coast around Tyre and Sidon. The tribe had deeper cultural ties with its gentile neighbours than it did with the rest of Israel. Along with the other nine northern tribes that split from Judah, Asher was conquered by the Assyrians, its people dispersed, with a faithful few migrating south to rejoin Judah in worshipping God at Jerusalem.
It would appear that Anna came from this faithful remnant of Asherites. Her presence at the temple and her prophetic office serve as reminders that the Gospel is for everyone – small and great, gentile and Jew, and those who don’t fit neatly into any category. In fact, the coming Messiah would begin his earthly ministry out of Galilee, a land much closer to Asher than it was to Jerusalem.
Although Anna was a prophetess, Luke doesn’t record any of her words. He does, however, mention that after she had seen Jesus presented at the temple, “she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” In other words, Anna became the first evangelist recorded in the New Testament to publish the good news of salvation through Jesus.
Women in Luke: bookending and supporting the Gospel
Luke begins and ends his Gospel with women. At the Nativity, they’re the first to believe the prophecies and angelic messages regarding the coming Messiah, and the first to speak and sing about him. At the Cross, they’re the last to stay with the crucified Christ, and at the Tomb they’re the first to see the risen Lord and to declare that he is risen, indeed. Along the way, they travel with his disciples and support his ministry out of their own means.
As the only gentile author of the New Testament, Luke had a special concern for outsiders, the socially marginalized, the poor, foreigners and women. As a historian, his goal was to write an orderly account, based on careful research and eyewitness testimony, of all that Jesus began to do and teach, so that his readers might have certainty about the truth of the Gospel. For the wealth of detail about the Nativity and other key moments in Jesus’ life, Luke almost certainly relied on Mary as well as other women who were directly involved in those events.
It was a bold move on Luke’s part, in a society where a woman’s testimony was inadmissible in a court of law. But it was also a compassionate and enlightened move that recognized the God-given value of both women and men, and their equal access to God through Christ. And it was a convincing move with the ring of truth to it – after all, who would ever invent such a tale in that cultural milieu, and then support it with the stories and words of women?
During the Advent season, it’s customary to envision the Nativity the way it’s portrayed in paintings and Christmas cards – Mary sitting quietly by the manger with her baby, eyes downcast, golden halo intact, surrounded by men.
But the birth narrative recorded by Luke is far richer and fuller than any two-dimensional set piece could ever capture. There are other women in the story – fiery Elizabeth and visionary Anna and the poetic spirit of Hannah from ages past. Mary herself is a far cry from her passive stereotype – she converses with an angel, wonders at his words, treasures them in her heart, shares her joy with her cousin, sings about her Son who will redeem his people.
These four women offer much worthy material for reflection during the four weeks of Advent. Their stories and voices anticipate the words of Luke’s friend and colleague, the Apostle Paul:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Sources and further reading
Darrell L. Bock, Luke, (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Baker Academic, 1994.
Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, (New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 1997.
R. Kent Hughes, Luke: That You May Know the Truth, (Preaching the Word), Crossway, 2014.
Leon Morris, Luke, (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), IVP Academic, 1988.
Philip Graham Ryken, Luke, (Reformed Expository Commentary), P&R Publishing, 2009.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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