Mary, Elizabeth and Anna, the women who feature so prominently in the Christmas narratives in Scripture, can certainly be called women of faith and courage.
Even though God’s people would have known about his intervention in the childlessness of Sarah and Hannah, childlessness in this culture was still viewed as a calamity and a judgement. The Rabbis believed that a Jew with a wife who bore him no children had grounds for divorce.
Knowing the seed promise of the deliverer, devout Jewish women would undoubtedly have cherished the hope that they could be the one to deliver the breaker of the curse. The cultural situation explains Elizabeth’s gratitude that God had ‘taken away my disgrace among the people’ (Luke 1:25). She had borne her pain righteously, without bitterness.
Elizabeth and Mary, though differing in age, had much in common. Both were godly women, evidenced in their joint response to Mary’s pregnancy. ‘Why am I so favoured that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’ said Elizabeth whilst Mary’s response was, ‘My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ (Luke 1:43, 47). Both women were given an insight into the place that their respective sons would play in God’s plan of salvation. Elizabeth’s son would be the Elijah-figure who would herald the way for Mary’s son, the Son of the Most High, great David’s greater Son. Both women experienced God’s supernatural intervention in conceiving a son. After 400 years of silence, no one could have blamed Elizabeth for doubting that God was at work, in the way that Zechariah did. Yet she didn’t doubt, instead she was chosen by God to bring spiritual support and comfort to the young Mary in her own perplexing situation.
Others would have heaped blame and censure on Mary. Not Elizabeth. The Holy Spirit enabled her to be thrilled at all that God promised. Mary’s situation would have brought shame upon herself and her family in their community. Which of the locals were looking out in faith and hope for the virgin birth? Rather it would have been a case of launching blame for a birth outside wedlock (Matt. 1:19-24) and public disgrace. Both women are obedient to God’s calling on their lives and humbled by what God has for them. ‘Why am I so favoured?’ says Elizabeth and Mary resounds, ‘He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant’ (Luke 1:43, 48).
How do we apply lessons for today from situations that were so unprecedented? We have all been facing unprecedented times this year. Have we been tempted to doubt that God is at work? Have we been able to humbly bow to his dealings in our lives and see his bigger purposes?
A merciful God
Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) betrays a mind and soul soaked in the Old Testament Scriptures and a confidence in God’s big plan. We see this from her reference to God’s promise to Abraham, that through his offspring all nations would be blessed (Genesis 22:18, Luke 1:55). Mary’s knowledge of God’s dealings with his people and the character of God, his holiness, mercy, power, goodness and faithfulness, are expressed in the song. She doesn’t just know about her God, she knows him. She trusts him with her destiny, as three months later she returns home to face the music.
Mary is our example, as she trusts in God’s merciful purposes down the generations. The same God who was merciful to his servant Israel will be merciful to us today. That is his nature, as Mary’s song reminds us.
Trusting through joy and sorrow
Mary’s story is one of contrasts. The joy that came from the birth of her special son was peppered with the sorrow of hearing Simeon’s prophecy with its warning of sorrow to come (Luke 2:35). The lavish and meaningful gifts of the Magi are set alongside the hasty escape to Egypt. She is thoughtful, not quite understanding all the events and their significance, but with courage, she plays her part in the unfolding of events that were to divide history.
The events of this year have surely shown us the folly of our confidence in our material and hedonistic lifestyles. We would do well to learn to navigate the joys and sorrows of this life with the same thoughtful and pondering attitude that was Mary’s (Luke 2:51).
A devoted servant
Anna, like Elizabeth, had a godly heritage. As Elizabeth suffered the shame of childlessness, so Anna suffered the pain of a long widowhood. Rather than becoming bitter because of the hand that God had dealt her, Anna devoted herself to the service of her God. She walked the courts of the Temple that would echo with the sound of sacrifice and sorrow, the daily reminder of the need for atonement. With the eye of faith, she saw not just a child, but the Saviour and she testified of him. The place of watching and waiting in prayer and fasting became the place of fulfilment. Anna is an example to us, when circumstances put us in that place of being ‘in God’s waiting room.’ When did you last fast and pray? It seems to be a discipline that is dying out.
Christmas offers that opportunity to reflect on God’s supernatural dealings with his people, the scene being resplendent with angels and gifts of gold, the atmosphere steeped in poetic prophecies. Yet, these three women remind us that faith and courage is necessary when we humbly walk with God, even at times when we don’t understand.
The Christmas story is not about these women though. They each had a part to play in God’s amazing plan to bring salvation to all the nations of the earth. What unites them all in the narrative is Jesus. It’s all about him. He is the one who gives ‘the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins’ and who shines ‘on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet into the path of peace’ (Luke 1:79).