Last Christmas, I was, like Mary the mother of Jesus, “great with child” (Luke 2:5). Expecting a baby during the season Advent is for many Christian women a holy time. Our bodies are creative forces, churning with life and hope and possibility. Our feet may be swollen and sore, and we may be dying for a cup of coffee or glass of wine, but many of us also feel a kinship with Mary as we witness and display the generative power of God.
During this season, church services often celebrate the expectant Holy Mother and include a recitation of Luke 1:46-55, known as “the Magnificat,” or “My Soul Magnifies the Lord.” Church tradition holds that Mary sang this song after her pregnant (and much further along) relative Elizabeth famously proclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
For many, this passage is a part of Advent’s wonder. A young woman has been given a miracle to carry within her body. The son of God and son of humanity—who takes away the sins of the world, destroys the power of death, frees captives, and establishes his everlasting peace and justice upon the earth—resides in the womb of a virgin. What could be more extraordinary than that? As a girl, I could not have imagined a greater marvel.
Many would argue that a virgin conceiving by divine order tops everyone’s pregnancy story. But for me and many other women like me, our understanding of the Incarnation is shaped by the quieter, commoner glory of a woman of advanced maternal age feeling the company of her child.
Last Advent season, I was in medical terms a “woman of advanced maternal age.” (If you think that’s insensitive, the official category used to be “geriatric pregnancy.”) As the scriptures say, I was expecting a child in my “old age.” And after spending almost a decade praying, pleading, bargaining, and weeping for a child, my perspective changed on what counts as a miraculous pregnancy.
Like many couples who struggle with infertility, when my spouse and I began our quest to welcome a child into our family, we had every confidence that we would achieve our goal in a matter of months. But after seven years of ovulation predictor kits, basal body temperature thermometers, medical interventions, hormonal treatments, and pregnancy loss, we found ourselves emotionally, financially, and spiritually exhausted.
Many women struggling to bear children will attest to the fact that when you are trying to have a baby, it seems like everyone you know is pregnant in particularly obnoxious, accidental ways. “Oops!” your friend’s Instagram account will say, “my partner and I weren’t even trying but now we are having TWINS!!!”
I diligently tried to talk myself out of grief. I told myself that the social and cultural directives put upon women unfairly prioritized biological motherhood as the most valuable form of existence. I reasoned that as a pastor’s spouse, I was under an unusual amount of pressure to produce an ideal nuclear family, something Protestants have valued since the days of Katerina Von Bora and Martin Luther’s Protestant pastor’s home. And I told myself that as a woman of considerable privilege with a network of loving friends and family, I had no right to be full of sadness when so many others in the world suffered more than me. Of course, there is truth in all of these thoughts, but they’re cold comfort in a season of sorrow.
One Christmas Eve, after a particularly grueling and unsuccessful round of hormone treatments, I was asked to read the Magnificat from the pulpit. The grandmother who was scheduled to read it had laryngitis, and as a pastor’s spouse, I was around and available. As I stood at the pulpit, I recited the words stoically: “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” That evening, I was angry with everyone and everything around me, even the Blessed Virgin herself.
Mercifully, this season came to an end. On our very last try with medical technology, we welcomed a baby into our household. That pregnancy was fraught with terror. Every waking hour brought with it new fears that I would lose the beautiful life growing in my body. The second time around, I was one of those annoying women who was pregnant by surprise—and in my old age! Those who know what it’s like to endure the pain of infertility and pregnancy loss know the weird feelings of survivor’s guilt that accompany this type of family building.
Beyond the guilt, however, I came to feel a closeness to Elizabeth, Mary’s much older relative. Some biblical manuscripts attribute the Magnificat to Elizabeth. Elizabeth does not bear the Christ Child—she carries a special but merely human John the Baptist. But as I think about the words of the Magnificat springing from the soul of an older woman, I see her proclamation about the Incarnation in a different light.
In Luke, Elizabeth is far enough along to feel her child kicking in her womb. A woman of advanced maternal age who yearns for a child knows the power of this moment in a way that a young woman cannot. It is certainly not as showy as a virgin birth, but it is in its own way a poignant example of “God with us.” Old-timey words like wonder, marvel, and mystery come to mind.
History remembers this song as belonging to the Holy Mother. For me, especially at Christmastime, it is also Elizabeth’s song, my song, and the song of my many sisters across space and time who have longed and continue to long for their own common and glorious gift.
Leah Payne is assistant professor of Theological Studies at Portland Seminary of George Fox University and author of the award-winning book, Gender and Pentecostal Revivalism: Making a Female Ministry in the Twentieth Century. In her spare time, she co-hosts a pop culture and religion podcast called Weird Religion at weirdreligion.com.
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