The First Incarnational Theologians Were Women

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Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

The Angel startled Mary. Her prayers cracked open with the unexpected visit. Her mind swirled with the greeting of high honor. No one, not even Joseph, called her ‘favored one.’ She forced herself to focus as the angel kept speaking.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your cousin Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

She sat in stunned silence. The bright being disoriented her senses; daylight and moonlight spun around her like dancing ribbons. A whirlwind of stars circled her. Overcome with dizziness, she stayed perfectly still as heavenly bodies orbited her. When she opened her eyes, the room was bare as before—her cup on the table, her tea now cold. She was both held and alone.

She remembered what the holy herald said, that cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant with an improbable son. She prepared a small bag quickly and left Nazareth, making a visitation of her own.

***

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

The words exploded out of her mouth as the boy in her belly jumped. Everything in Elizabeth recognized her young cousin as saturated in blessings. They fell into a long overdue embrace.

“Who are we to gestate revolutionaries?” one whispered to the other.

“Is it really possible?” the elder asked.

“The angel told me that nothing will be impossible with God,” Mary said as she gestured toward her cousin’s rounded belly. 

The cousins shared everything from chores to conversations about the conditions of life growing in them. Who else could understand a pregnancy accompanied by an angelic announcement, a child divinely named and arriving with prophetic verve?

“What a grace we have each other,” Mary said as they navigated the stony terraces to make their way to the nearby well.

“I felt so alone in the months before you arrived with no one to talk to about all this,” Elizabeth said as she cupped her protruding belly. 

The elder cousin often spoke of the Matriarch, Sarah. “She was also old and barren. She was also surprised by an announcement of a chosen son. And here we are—the nation of Israel. So my situation is not entirely without precedent. This has happened before.” 

“I wonder who Sarah confided in?” Mary asked as they kneaded the soft dough into loaves for the days bread.

“Maybe John will prepare the temple for the Lord’s arrival. Maybe he will rid it of those priests that pocket the coins of the poor, expel the sellers who use unfair scales to overcharge us during feast days…” 

“I wonder if that is what the angel meant by making the temple work for the people again,” Mary interjected as she shook out the rug. 

“Imagine,” Elizabeth continued from her perch by the kettle. “If John tackles all the animal sacrifice. I mean, I never have understood why God demands a cow, a goat or doves.” Mary laughed at the audacity of her cousin as she shook out the final rug and joined her for sage tea in the shade.

On another day when the cold rain kept them indoors, Mary mused about another young mother from their tradition. “Remember when the prophet Isaiah told King Ahaz about a sign? He pointed to a young woman with child and said that boy would be the sign of peace to come.” 

“Ah, Emmanuel,” Elizabeth said as she mended her husbands cloak. “Yes, God is with us! The prophet said that by the time the child was able to tell right from wrong, the community would be eating curds and honey and no longer under threat of war.” 

“So within a few years time there would be peace across the land.” 

Elizabeth nodded. 

“So what if my son is like him?” Mary asked. “What if he is the sign that peace will eventually come to our people? What if he will inaugurate a new season for all humanity just by living out his life as God’s son on the earth?” 

Elizabeth raised her brow as she continued stitching the garment. 

“I suppose it won’t be just his presence that will bring peace,” Mary sighed. “There will be trouble because of him, I suppose. How could a peacemaker not stir up conflict among the corrupt? How could God in the flesh not disturb people… at least at first?”

When the sun shone bright over the tree line surrounding their small hamlet, Mary took her cousin’s hand and helped her walk down the terraces toward the well. “You need to keep moving, Elizabeth.” 

Their tandem stride created a kind of drumbeat as they walked. Mary began to hum an old song her own mother sang on feast days and Elizabeth chimed in with the words. 

“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.” 

Then she added, “You know Mary, it is your namesake, Miriam, who composed that song and taught the women to sing it as they crossed the Red Sea into freedom.” 

Their feet kept the cadence and Mary could not resist singing her own song about her own son.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…

He has shown strength with his arm,

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty…”

 

***

Walking the streets of Ein Kerem with Ellie and Annie this past October, we spoke of what it looks like for us to love our nieces and nephews, our son and daughters. We naturally considered what it is to be women in this world, filled with both peril and promise. We were walking the same terrain of Mary and Elizabeth, enjoying another time of visitation. It occurred to me that this has always been what women do—they consider tradition and converse about theology together. 

The first word of incarnation came to a young woman alone in her room. Maybe the men believed her testimony, but probably not. But the angel pointed her to a cousin, a worthy conversation partner. And for three months as they felt flutterings in the deep folds of their wombs and watched their bellies grow, they talked about matriarchs of the faith and how God moved before. As their bodies expanded, so did their theological imagination. And right there, between these two women, the first theologies of incarnation were shaped and spoken. 

As I sing of the arrival of Jesus this Christmas, I will ponder in my heart the first incarnation conversations hosted by the women. Before the men knew what was afoot, the women were already singing of a grand reversal, a complete reordering of the kingdoms of this world and a restoration of peace that would benefit the poor, like them, most of all. They were the first to know that whatever else the incarnation meant, God among us and enfleshed like us would mean the dawn of a new world. The women knew first.

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Biblical quotations from Luke 1:28, 35-36, 42, 46, & 51-52.

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