This is the last Sunday of advent. We celebrate advent in a global context dominated by multiple threats to life such as Covid-19, climate change, and gender-based violence. The gifts of Advent, that is hope love, peace and joy, may sound utopian and unrealistic in the face of suffering and death. Yet these are the gifts that the world needs to counter the roots of violence, inequality, divisions, hate, and power.
In today’s gospel reading Mary- pregnant with Jesus- visits Elizabeth who is pregnant with John. They are bound by their extraordinary experiences of God initiated supernatural pregnancies – Mary a virgin and Elizabeth an older woman past menopause. God literally, to use modern language head hunted, these women to be partners in ushering the most significant event in the history of humanity. God it seems believes in women, takes women seriously, and trusts women with the greatest event in history.
I want to discuss the paradox and subversion of power in this story. Starting with the context in which the two women lived: the Hebrew nation was under Roman rule; power belonged to Rome and they exercised it brutally, unleashing military force in the face of any threat to their power. Unbeknown to Rome, there was another power operating in the most unlikely place - that is in the lives of these two women from an oppressed nation who had no significance, status, or power. Further the two women had no male presence or authority to mediate their experiences for them. They were left on their own to make sense of the extraordinary events that were happening in their lives. The men (Zechariah and Joseph) in their lives were silent because of their unbelief. Left to themselves, they discovered their power borne out of their relationship with God and with each other to face with courage, resilience, and faith the uncertain future that lay ahead of them.
Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, and from her experience of affirmation at the sound of Mary's voice, says 'the baby in me leapt for joy.’ Then she spoke the first words of prophecy and validation to Mary:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me? For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
For the first time Mary felt understood, affirmed, and safe. She now had the courage to face the uncertain future that lay ahead of her. Standing strong together these women in the ordinary and hidden space of their encounter plated the foundation of a kingdom that would overthrow and outlive Rome!
Yes the paradox of power!
I want to conclude by referring to the readings from the prophet Micah and letter to the Hebrews - both of which point to the coming of the Great Shepherd and ruler who will bring peace through offering his body as sacrifice for the salvation of the world. Hebrews identifies Jesus as the One who brought salvation through the sacrifice of his life. My question is that Jesus did not drop from heaven as grown man ready to sacrifice his life, so where did he learn the virtues of sacrificial faith, courage, resilience, respect for the poor and women, wisdom and so much more that characterize who he is? He came as a baby and learned these virtues from these two women whose lives and relationship embodied them. So when we think about salvation of the world we start with women and recognize the truth of the African understanding that a human being is intricately linked to others so that he or she is who they are because of others. It was this community of women that infused in both Jesus and John the virtues and qualities that made them who they are.
In a world where a third of women globally experience violence, the power of women circles and authority to speak and bring life to each other, the story of Elizabeth and Mary is indeed the Advent story of hope for women.
Prayer: Pioneers of women’s agency and power, remind us of our power born in the ordinary and in our relationships so that we too can be our own liberations and in doing so bring salvation to the world.
May the Advent gifts of hope, love, joy and peace create a safe world for women, the planet and all vulnerable groups.
Dr. Nontando Hadebe is a lay woman theologian and International Coordinator for Side by Side, a faith movement for gender justice. She was previously senior lecturer at St. Augustine College in South Africa, specializing in African Theology, Pastoral & Contextual Theology, Feminist & Womanist Theology, Liberation Theology and Pastoral Psychology.
She is a member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians as well as the TCCRSA Women's Caucus comprising Catholic women theologians in Africa.
She was Visiting Fellow at the Jesuit School of Theology, Santa Clara University (August-December 2014) and Fulbright scholar in residence at Emmanuel College, Boston (January-May 2015). She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of South Africa, where she participated in groundbreaking research with Professor Marilyn Naidoo on gender and theological education in South African institutions.
She co-edited a book published in August 2021 titled A time like no other: Covid 19 in Women's voices which is a collection of women's stories and theologies during covid-19 in South Africa.
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