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“There are no new pains:” A feminist Advent reflection

Liz Cooledge Jenkins reflects on Elizabeth, Luke's Gospel, and Audre Lorde.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

And it happened (that) in the eighth day they went to circumcise the child, and they were calling him by the name of his father Zechariah. And his mother, answering, said, “No, but he will be called John.”

And they said to her, “No one from your relatives is called by this name.” And they gestured to his father, whatever he might wish him to be called. And, after asking (for) a tablet, he wrote, saying, “John is his name.” And everyone marveled.  — Luke 1:59-63 (my translation)

“Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves — along with the renewed courage to try them out … And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already.” — Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”

In some ways, the first couple chapters of Luke’s Gospel are a feminist’s dream. Luke centers on two women: Mary and Elizabeth. Mary is Jesus’ mother and Elizabeth is John the Baptist’s mother. But they are also so much more than that. Luke lets us get to know these women, fleshing out their characters. While Matthew’s birth-of-Christ narratives center on men like Joseph and Herod, Luke wants to tell us about Elizabeth and Mary and Anna ― just as much as he wants to tell us about Zechariah and Simeon.

In Luke’s stories, we meet Elizabeth, a woman well past child-bearing age who has experienced years of shame from her community due to her and her husband’s infertility — which everyone assumes is her fault, not her husband’s, and many assume is a result of sin. We see how she claims her new pregnancy as a precious gift from God (Luke 1:25). God removes the gendered shame others have placed on Elizabeth. Elizabeth receives this gratefully.

We meet Mary, a teenage girl living in poverty under an oppressive empire – a nobody in the eyes of those with power – who receives a surprising visit from an angel. The angel tells her she is highly favored, and God is with her (vv. 28-30).

We hear Elizabeth’s joyful blessing for Mary (vv. 39-45). We hear Mary’s powerful prophetic song (vv. 46-55).

And then, right after all of this unmitigated female badassery, we are rudely reminded of the world we really live in by a story about the naming of John the Baptist on his circumcision day.

“No, but he will be called John”

Elizabeth gives birth to a boy, her sweet and beautiful miracle baby. And it seems we see a beautiful thing happening: her community – that same community that made her feel lonely and inadequate and vaguely guilty about being infertile – now gathers around her. They rejoice with her, congratulate her, celebrate with her. They have lovely things to say about God’s mercy and blessings. They pray together and thank God for the gift of the child. They tell Elizabeth how they look forward to being a part of her son’s childhood – after all, it takes a village – and how they can’t wait to see her son grow up and become the person God intends him to be.

Then, it comes time to circumcise and name the baby.

Elizabeth knows that, many months before, her husband Zechariah saw an angel who told him in no uncertain terms what the child’s name should be (v. 13). Zechariah doubted the good news of the angel, and, as a result, he was unable to speak for months (v. 20). Whether Zechariah painstakingly penned every word the angel told him onto tablets or simply scratched the name “John” in the dirt on the ground for Elizabeth to read, the story doesn’t say. We do know Elizabeth is aware the baby is to be called John.

Those well-wishing, casserole-bringing neighbors and relatives, though ― they don’t know all the things Elizabeth knows. They think they know things. They make a reasonable assumption based on the traditional norms of their community: the boy will be named after his father. But this family is a little different. Their child will be a little different, to put it mildly.

And it falls to Elizabeth to tell them so. Gently and firmly, she speaks: “No, but he will be called John” (v. 60).

Her community could have listened to her with care and respect. They could have replied, “Ah, okay, we didn’t know, but now we do. Thank you for telling us. John is a lovely name.” They do not do this. Instead, they reply, “No one from your relatives is called by this name.” They dismiss her words. And then they turn to her (still speechless) husband for a more authoritative opinion. “Zechariah, what is this child’s name, actually?”

Those with more power are often quite sure those with less power are wrong ― and they do not hesitate to say so.

This scene strikes me as profoundly relatable. Two thousand years later, in a completely different place and culture, I get it. “Oh Elizabeth, you’re being silly. Surely you wouldn’t have the nerve to break tradition like that. We’ll check with your husband.”

These well-meaning friends and neighbors aren’t afraid to take what they think they know, however wrong they might be, and correct Elizabeth with it ― which might feel familiar to any woman who has ever tried to share their expertise with men. Or any person of color in a room full of White people. Or anyone who finds themself on the underside of any of the power structures of our world. Those with more power are often quite sure those with less power are wrong ― and they do not hesitate to say so.

When I am dismissed like this, sometimes I blame myself. Maybe I should have smiled more, or less, or been more direct, or less direct, or expressed less emotion, or more emotion, or spoken more loudly, or more quietly. Elizabeth’s story reminds me that it’s not about these things. Ultimately, if people are willing to listen, they will listen. If they value and respect someone, they will do their best to hear what that person has to say. And if not, well, that person can speak as clearly and graciously and directly as Elizabeth did, and she still won’t be heard. The listeners will still turn to someone with perceived power – likely a man – to give them a version of reality they’re willing to believe.

Ultimately, if people value and respect someone, they will do their best to hear what that person has to say.

When Zechariah reiterates that the child is to be named John, as Elizabeth instructed, the neighbors and family members don’t push back. No, they “marvel.” They wonder, out loud, “Who, then, will this child be?” (v. 66). I can see their wheels turning: “Wow, Zechariah is on board too. Maybe Elizabeth isn’t crazy. This child might really be someone special.”

Zechariah stands by his wife and affirms her words. Apparently, this is the right thing to do because the moment he does, he can speak again (v. 64). And, perhaps in a hoarse, raspy voice, he prophesies about his child, maybe not caring about what people might think for the first time in his life (vv. 67-79).

“There are no new pains.” — Audre Lorde

In some ways, my world is so very different from Elizabeth’s. But in other ways, it is hardly different. I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s words in her 1977 essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury:” “There are no new pains.” The patriarchal dismissal of Elizabeth feels familiar.

The Gospel writer Luke doesn’t push back the sexism captured in these narratives, but he does include it. He doesn’t try to hide the community’s rejection of Elizabeth. I appreciate this because it is only when we choose to look these things straight in the face that we can start having braver conversations in our communities.

As Christians mark the season of Advent year after year, we cycle back to our longing for God’s presence among us. We return to our need for God’s revelation of love and mercy in ways we can see and touch and understand. We circle back to our ancient pains, our unresolved longings, our not-yet-healed places of hurt. We sing our need for Emmanuel, God with us.

When we choose to listen, we become part of the joyful transformation our weary world desperately needs.

And as we do so, we can choose to see not just our own longing but the longings of all those on the underside of power structures. We can see that Advent is about God showing up for us and about God showing up in justice-bringing, peace-bringing ways in our communities. Showing up for women. Showing up for people of color. Showing up for queer and trans people. Showing up for people living in poverty. Showing up for migrants. Showing up for people who endure violence daily.

We long for a God who responds with care to the cries of those whose perspectives, ideas, and insights are ignored and belittled. On a personal level, unchecked mansplaining (or Whitesplaining, etc.) is frustrating, relationship-breaking and career-damaging. On a societal level, it is devastating. It is the systematic erasure of minoritized perspectives in favor of one dominant, violent, not-quite-fully-truthful narrative.

This Advent season, may Elizabeth’s story remind us that when someone on the underside of power names something, we have the choice to listen or ignore it. When we choose to listen, we become part of the joyful transformation our weary world desperately needs.

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