In Luke’s first chapter he records the meeting of two pregnant women. Elizabeth had been childless and “disgraced” for being so, for not being a “proper” woman. She and her husband had longed for a child and she became joyfully pregnant in her old age. Not all childless women who want children are so fortunate, however hard they pray. Mary, her cousin, was much younger, unmarried, pregnant without intending to be so, and so sharing an experience with many young women in every country of the world. In many cultures, this too was a “disgrace”, more the fault of the woman, who was easily identifiable, than of the (usually older) man involved, who was more difficult to track down. In fact, Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth, had the responsibility, under the Jewish laws of the time, to organise the stoning to death of his cousin, Mary, because of her pregnancy outside marriage.
These two families experienced a wide range of emotions when pregnancy came along. All families do. But whereas men can (and do) walk away, women have no choice. We must be as grateful as Mary must have been that Zechariah’s elation at becoming a father overrode the cruel and ridiculous imperative to organise an execution.
Both women set us an example. Each welcoming the change that pregnancy provided to dedicate their body to the useful service of God. Having children is not, of course the only route to service, and the more enlightened parts of our society neither pity nor despise childless women but rejoice in their freedom to serve in other ways.
But what about men? Do men have a similar desire to serve, to dedicate their bodies to useful work for God? Many apparently do not. Even when a man stays with a woman to share the upbringing of the children, all the evidence points to men feeling that they have a right to a nice sit down whilst a woman partner continues with housework. They feel that they have more right to “have to” stay late at the office, more right to go on business trips. Apparently, the more a woman earns, the less housework her partner does, leading to the idea that it is not so much a glass ceiling that holds women back but rather a sticky floor.
We just don’t know how Joseph and Zechariah spent their time, how much they laboured in the home, helping bring up the children. Men, particularly men who claim the description “Christian”, surely have a duty to dedicate their time and their being to doing useful work for God, just as their womenfolk do. When a man and woman jointly create pregnancy, we should hope that they begin the discussion about division of labour on equal terms, not with the woman as a supplicant.
Elizabeth and Mary set us a wonderful example of how to welcome the different circumstances of life. I am sure that Mary had quite a few “Why me?” moments of resentment inbetween Magnificats, and that Elizabeth had cause to regret, from time to time, the parenting she had to do of a rebellious young man in her old age. Both, however, joyfully fulfilled their mission which we celebrate this Advent. Let us do the same.