By Dr. Jennifer Garcia Bashaw, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Christian Ministry at Campbell University.
Mary and Elizabeth: Prophets in the Christmas Story
This Advent season, many of us will find comfort in the predictable routines we have created around Christmas. We will sing our favorite carols in the Christmas cantata and read the familiar advent Scriptures as we light the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. We will hear the same stories repeated and gaze on the iconic Nativity scene as we travel the well-worn path toward the manger. However heartening our scripted traditions are, it is possible that they have caused us to miss a deeply significant Christmas truth year in and year out… that in the story of Jesus’ birth, we see the salvific work of God through the lives of women.
Two women appear in the birth narrative from Luke’s Gospel—Elizabeth and Mary—but only Mary makes a regular appearance in our Christmas pageants and songs. Even then, we tend to minimize Mary’s role in the story and depict her as the scared and submissive recipient of the angel’s message (Luke 1:26-38) or the wallflower mother who silently dotes on her baby in the manger (Luke 2:7, 19). These traditional portrayals do not do justice to the biblical narrative at all. When we read Luke carefully, we find that the evangelist does not relegate Mary or Elizabeth to the background but assigns them both starring roles as spirit-filled prophets central to the story of Jesus’ birth.
Elizabeth, prophet and pastor
Elizabeth is rarely in view when we recount the Christmas story and yet she plays an integral role in Luke’s birth narrative. She is introduced with her husband Zechariah in Luke 1:6 as “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” When God grants her a geriatric pregnancy, she believes and accepts the miracle of God, even when her husband could not. Her words in Luke 1:25 illustrate a deep sense of God’s work in her life: “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.” The blame and shame she had suffered as a barren woman in her society no longer defined her. The work of God in and through her gave her a new identity.
That new identity involved prophetic and pastoral ministry, as we can see in her next appearance in the story. In Luke 1:39-45, we read about what happened when the pregnant Mary shows up on Elizabeth’s doorstep. As soon as Mary greets her, Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. The phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” occurs five different times in the Septuagint, or Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 28:3; 31:3; 35:31; Deut. 34:9; Isa. 11:2). In each of these cases, God gives an individual prophetic power to complete a task or bring divine insight to a situation. For Luke, those who were “filled with the Spirit,” like Zechariah (1:67-79) and later John the Baptist, speak on behalf of God with this prophetic anointing. Therefore, in the Old Testament tradition and in Luke’s own Gospel, the description “filled with the Spirit” communicates the charismatic activity of the Holy Spirit in prophecy.
With Luke’s careful wording, we must acknowledge the words that Elizabeth speaks as the divine insight of a prophet: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:42, 45) Elizabeth’s declaration about Mary is not only a prophetic blessing for the young mother, it is also a description about the trust in God that both Mary and Elizabeth have displayed throughout their supernatural pregnancies. Both Mary and Elizabeth believed that the Lord’s words would be fulfilled in their lives and the lives of their children.
Luke paints Elizabeth in a pastoral light as well as a prophetic one. If we put ourselves in the place of Mary—a frightened teenager whose unconventional pregnancy would have made her a pariah in her hometown—we can see how Elizabeth’s words from God offer ministerial comfort to Mary. The utterance of affirmation and encouragement Elizabeth gives to Mary is an act of pastoral care, unparalleled in the whole birth narrative. Elizabeth, far from being a mere literary prelude to Jesus’ birth, is an example of how God chose a woman to fulfill the role of prophet and pastor at one of the most significant moments in salvation history.
Mary, prophet and model disciple
Mary may be a staple every nativity scene, but in our retelling of the Christmas story, we downplay how important she is—not just to the birth narrative—but to the message of Luke’s entire Gospel. Not only does Luke explain the birth of Jesus through her perspective, he also casts her in the role of prophet and uses her words and life situation to embody the purposes of Jesus’ ministry.
In Luke 1:26-38 Gabriel announces to Mary that, even with her humble background and her virginal status, God had chosen her to conceive and bear the baby who would be called the Son of the Most High. How frightened she must have been of the angel, of her pregnancy, and of her future! Yet, Mary responds to the angel’s words with trust and obedience: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Luke portrays her as a true disciple of God, ready to lay down her will and follow God with her whole being. In fact, several New Testaments scholars have called Mary the first disciple or even the model disciple. There would be twelve apostles later in Luke’s Gospel, and dozens of other disciples who leave their lives to follow Jesus, but Mary is the precursor to them all, a faithful disciple who puts aside her life to give life to Jesus the Messiah.
In addition to appearing as an exemplary disciple, Mary also steps into the same role Elizabeth filled—a prophet of the Lord. In Luke 1:46-55, we read the poetic prophecy that finds melodic expression in The Magnificat. This song gives us a beautiful picture of the character of God…and of Mary. In response to Elizabeth’s prophecy over her in 1:42-45, Mary declares,
“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.”
From the beginning of the Magnificat, Luke illustrates Mary’s faithfulness and humble position. Mary’s self-description of “lowly” in the song connects to the language of “poor” we see Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4. There, Jesus inaugurates his ministry when he announces to his home synagogue in Nazareth that he has come to bring the good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The poor on whom God’s favor rests find early representation in Mary. Mary’s pregnancy, in fact, may serve as a prophetic sign-act that personifies God’s preference for the lowly and humble. At the same time, a divine understanding permeates her poem. Mary believes and declares the words of the Lord, calling attention to the work of God in the world. Just as Mary’s initial answer to the angel, “Here am I,” echoes the words of the Old Testament prophets, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah, the visionary words of the Magnificat characterize Mary as a prophet who announces the truth of the Lord.
In the words of her song, Mary praises and worships God, recalling the great deeds of God in Israel’s past. She also announces the salvation that God was in the process of bringing through Jesus. When she proclaims that God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, she is predicting the exaltation of the Jesus over the powers that rule humanity. When she declares that God has filled the hungry with good things, she is pronouncing the nature of God’s kingdom, the care for the marginalized and oppressed. Her prophecy lays the foundation for Jesus’ ministry in Luke by revealing the redemption and reversal of human priorities that Jesus will begin. When we spend time with Mary outside of the confines of the stable, we can see that Mary is so much more than the mother-mild—she is a model disciple and prophet extraordinaire who sets the scene for the work of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel story.
Why women in ministry? Because the Bible tells me so
As we have seen, the evangelist Luke goes out of his way to portray the prophetic and pastoral work of women in Jesus’ birth story. In the rest of his Gospel, Luke highlights the contributions of women to Jesus’ ministry and emphasizes the evangelistic work of women like Anna the prophet and the disciples at the tomb. If women were integral to the life and ministry of Jesus on earth so many years ago, how much more important should the work of women be in the life and ministry of Christ’s Church today?
 Simeon, in Luke 2:25-35, also has a connection with the Holy Spirit, but the phrasing is not exactly like these instances. Instead, Luke describes that the “Holy Spirit rested on him” and that “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”
 Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers: A Study in Luke’s Charismatic Theology (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), 66.
 Scholars also notice throughout Luke’s infancy narrative, that his characterization of Mary as submissive and obedient has been used in the Church and society to hold women (and mothers) to an impossible and idealized standard. This popular application of Mary’s devotion and sacrifice has done women a great disservice and caused suffering for women in many cultures throughout history.
 Ταπείνωσις (lowly) belongs to the language category of “poor” in the Third Gospel, which includes the negative social categories from the first-century based on gender, age, purity, and economic status. See Joel B. Green, “The Social Status of Mary in Luke 1:5-2:52: A Plea for Methodological Integration,” Biblica 73 no 4 (1992): 457-472, 470).
The artist, Ben Wildflower’s, depiction of Mary, based on the Magnificat.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.