A few days ago, I ran across this quotation from Cole Arthur Riley, a black liturgist who works to incorporate into prayer some biblical themes that we often ignore -- dignity, lament, a sense of belonging, the struggle for justice, the need for rest, and the ultimate goal, liberation. She wrote, “I take so much delight in the silence of the men in the Advent story. Zechariah can’t speak. Joseph doesn’t speak. While the words and emotions of Mary and Elizabeth take their rightful place. The sound of Advent is the voice of women.”
Like any good writer, she sent me back to the Bible, to remind myself of what, precisely, Elizabeth and Mary had said in their Advent stories. The first chapter of Luke quotes them both. Elizabeth was married to the high priest Zechariah. Both led righteous lives, but they were getting older and had no children. One day, the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah in the temple and told him that Elizabeth would bear a child, who would be named John and would bring others back to God. When Zechariah wondered aloud how that could be -- given their ages -- he was struck mute “until the day these things occur.” So, as Riley wrote, “Zechariah can’t speak.”
While his wife, Elizabeth was in seclusion, she said of her pregnancy (v. 25), “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Hold that thought.
When the same angel visits Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, to announce her child, she responds by thinking first (v. 29) and then speaking (v. 34): “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Then she listens before she speaks again (v. 38): “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me, according to your word.”
Soon Mary visits her kinswoman, Elizabeth, and the child in her womb leaps when he hears Mary’s voice (vv. 41-45). Then Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary respondes, speaking at length (vv. 47-55): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
“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 powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
A few months later, when Elizabeth’s child is born, people assumed he would be named after his father, Zechariah. His mother spoke one last time (v. 60), “No; he is to be called John.” When her hearers objected that that name didn’t run in her family, Zechariah responds -- in writing because he still can’t speak (v. 63) -- “His name is John.” Immediately. Zechariah’s mouth was opened.
Imagine an Advent when we heard not the whole Christmas story, as it was recorded most probably by men, not the countless words explaining what Christmas means, written and spoken by men in the centuries since, but only the words of Elizabeth and Mary. We would hear Elizabeth express her own sense of awe and humility. We’d hear her acknowledge the disgrace she endured in her barrenness. We would hear her rush to bless her kinswoman, not once, but twice and, between those two blessings, we'd here her own wonder about her role in the story.
And in Mary’s speech, one of the longest uttered by a woman in the Bible, we would hear her praise for God and her recognition of her own humility. We would hear her acknowledge what God has done for her. And we would hear her elaborate on what God will do for others:
Show mercy to the fearful.
Scatter the proud.
Bring down the powerful.
Lift up the powerless.
Fill the hungry.
Send the rich away empty.
If ever there was a theological to-do list, this might be it -- straightforward, humbly to the point. Riley is right. “The sound of Advent is the voice of women.” Are we listening?