Our two Christmas mothers

Looking at Mary and Elizabeth, Eliza Jaremko ponders the gift of companionship.

Icon from the Monastery of St Alphonsus, Dublin.

I’ve never forgotten the first Christmas I truly understood. It wasn’t the year I played an angel in the church Christmas pageant. It wasn’t the year I realized the truth about Santa Claus. It wasn’t even the year I preached my first Christmas Eve sermon. It was the year I was 6 months pregnant with my first child.

I so clearly remember reading the Advent texts that year, Bible resting on my growing bump. As I planned our church’s worship services for the season, I once again read the familiar texts of the Lukan narrative. Only this time, a line popped out – like words on a spring. The beginning of Mary’s story reads: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth” (Luke 1:26). In the sixth month of what? I asked. As I looked up to the previous verses, I realized: Mary does not begin her story alone. Her story is a companion piece to another woman, who was in the sixth month of her own pregnancy when Mary was visited by an angel.

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. It’s true I relate to Elizabeth because we share a name root and she too was a “woman of advanced maternal age.” Yet, more than that, Elizabeth plays a vital role in the Advent story: she’s the sought-out friend and companion to the mother of God.

In fact, Elizabeth is God’s chosen companion for Mary. When Mary is perplexed by the proclamation of the angel Gabriel, the angel doesn’t explain to her the biology of her pregnancy. The angel names a companion: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” (Luke 1:36). Gabriel gives Mary the gift of a friend for her journey.

When the angel leaves Mary, Mary leaves for Elizabeth. She travels the arduous journey to the Judean hill country – some 90 miles. In her first trimester, Mary would’ve traveled days on foot or by donkey. Full of exhaustion, worry and nausea, Mary makes the journey to her cousin’s house.

When Mary arrives on Elizabeth’s doorstep, miracles occur. Elizabeth, secluded for six long months with a mute husband, finds joy in Mary’s presence. Mary, alone with the knowledge that she is the mother of God’s son, finds affirmation in Elizabeth’s embrace. Elizabeth’s child leaps for joy in her womb. Mary sings praises as her very soul magnifies the Lord. There on that doorstop, two women with miraculous pregnancies recognize the work of God one another. They rejoice in the other’s strength, bravery and perseverance. They give thanks that God has given them the gift of each other.

Our two Christmas mothers stood side by side in that doorway, knowing who their children would become. Mary even moves in and stays three more months. Which means, she was most likely present for John’s birth. We don’t have the details of those three months, but I imagine it was a time filled with comfort and joy, waiting and worrying. The mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ journeyed together, envisioning how they’d raise these promised children.

Despite what those modern Christmas songs pronounce, Scripture tells us that these mothers knew just what God was getting them into. They knew who these children would grow to be. They knew they would be their child’s guides, the keeper of their secrets, their arms of safety. They knew what they faced. So, they faced it bravely. They faced it with sheer faith. They faced it together.

We are not Mary and Elizabeth. We are not called to physically bring the hope of the world into being. (Thank God!) Yet, we are called to carry the message of hope into this broken and fearful world. And we thank God, because, like Mary and Elizabeth, we do not carry that hope alone. We are companions in this faith journey. We are siblings – a community – of believers who bravely face God’s world together.

When I was in the sixth month of my pregnancy, I too set out to visit my companions. Exhausted (and a bit nauseous), I traveled to a local restaurant, where I met my friends in the faith – a crew of local clergywomen. During our meal, our joy for one another exploded into so much laughter that the child in my own womb kicked a giant kick. You might even say, the child leaped for joy.

Who is your companion this Advent? In this time of waiting, in this time of darkness, in this time of unknowing, may God also grant you a faithful friend with whom you can rejoice.