When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.Nothing is impossible for God.”
Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38, CEB)
What a loaded word “love” is for women. “Love” often means affection, or lust, or attraction, or attachment; for “love” to mean something deep, lasting, empowering, and healthy is, unfortunately, somewhat rare in modern culture all over the world. This last Sunday of Advent takes all of the waiting of the season, all of the stress and anxiety and wonder and weariness, and hands back love.
The language of love is part and parcel of the Christian Church—for love Christ died, for love Christ rose; Christians are commanded to love God, one another, and self. But love—true love, and not in the Disney sense of “true” love—is hard. It takes work. It takes vulnerability. It takes hope, and peace, and joy, and frustration, and communication, and dedication, and change. Love may be something into which people fall, but it must be something in which they actively try to remain. Christian love asks huge things, demands huge things in the name of incredibly huge love from God Herself.
What does the Church demand? One of the many things that prompted me to do this series addressing women in the Church from the position of a woman in the Church was the shameful and horrifying things said in the last year toward women and the silent allowance of much of the Church in response. Christianity’s track record with women is not exactly lovely, whether it be the early Church father Tertullian calling women the “gate to hell” in his treatise On the Apparel of Women, or the description of women as “defective and misbegotten” by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. Such destruction is not limited to the long-forgotten ages: Pat Robertson, a Southern Baptist evangelist, claimed in 1992 that the feminist agenda was not about equality but “it is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” And just this past election cycle in America, many churches and church leaders stayed silent when the man who is now the president-elect called women bimbos, accused them of being at fault for their husbands’ infidelities, rated women’s value as people on their weight and physical appearance, and actively bragged about sexual assault. (The Telegraph has pulled together a long timeline of his misogyny and predatorial nature, in case you’re curious about how far it goes.)
There is no love whatsoever in any Church leader or layperson not standing against this systemic dehumanization of women. There is no excuse for such language or actions to ever be condoned by those who call themselves Christians. This Advent, the Church must be a bearer of such incredible and deep love for women simply because they are God’s creations that there should be no doubt as to women’s worth. Many, however, refuse to take on this direct an action, insisting there are other ways the Church shows love and support.
Love must be said. It is most often shown in works, true, but to voice love for another has a power all its own. To make the claim of love in front of “God and everybody,” as the saying goes, is to be vulnerable—and the Church is currently not being vulnerable. Instead, women are told to bear their own vulnerability by the elusiveness of Christians who will not stand up and declare the awareness that women are purposefully and beautifully created, meant from the beginning to be part of humanity’s story in all its twists and turns.
Today’s passage, known in liturgy as the Annunciation, is one of the more famous stories of Christianity. Much of the focus is on the virgin birth and its impossibility made possible—yet verse 38 is perhaps the most powerful. It was only after Mary agreed to this child that Gabriel left. He waited for her consent. In arguably the most pivotal moment of God’s interaction with humans, the free will of a woman was more important than God’s plans. The faith and acceptance of Mary made Christianity as it is possible.
Was there a plan B had she said no? Likely. But the Church needs to take away from this story this Advent—and women, also, need to hear—that God Herself valued the voice of this woman enough to wait for her answer. That is love, that recognition that force or absence of choice would have ruined the whole of the religion as far as hope or joy or peace or a feeling of safety or belonging for half of the human population goes. That listening is something that we of the Church must do, now more than ever, whether it be recognizing as Alice Churnock writes that Christians are also sinners and there are stories of abuse we must be willing to hear because faith must be a place of healing; or whether it be refusing to talk over women who speak of pain within the Church as though their experience is unreal simply because not everyone shares it.
Know that you are loved, Reader. Know that who you are, no matter your gender, is celebrated by God because you live as Her creation. For you God made God’s self vulnerable enough to risk rejection; for love God was born; for love God lives. Hold fast to that, in this and every season.