This will not come as a galloping shock, but it was not easy being a woman in the ancient Middle East. It’s hard enough today – I always think of No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani singing I’m just a girl, I’d rather not be, ‘Cause they won’t let me drive, Late at night.
“Women in the ancient Middle East could never do anything alone. They either had to be always in a cluster of women and children or under the watchful eye of their father, brother, husband, or some other responsible male relative.
“A woman who goes anywhere alone, but especially a fourteen-year-old unmarried girl like Mary, is open to charges of shameful intentions and conduct. If no one other than Joseph knew she was pregnant at this time, such a solo journey would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about her pregnancy afterward.
“The trip from Nazareth in Galilee where Mary lived to a village in Judea where Elizabeth lived would take four days. (Later Christian tradition identified Am Karem, eight kilometers west of Jerusalem, as the place.) Since travel alone was not safe, people commonly joined a caravan. This is a possibility for Mary, but Luke does not mention it.”
Let’s take a quick pause. Now, we all know who Mary was, right? She’s the Mother of Jesus, of course, but before that, she was just a faithful Jewish teenager who lived in Nazareth, a town of no more than four hundred people situated on just about ten acres of rather fertile land. About ten miles away was the glittering city of Sepphoris, where surely some of the people of Nazareth made at least part of their living. Mary had parents, of course, though it’s somewhat weird to think of Jesus having a grandma and grandpa, and their names were Joachim and Anne. She had a brother, too, named Clopas or Cleophas, as the Greeks would say it. Mary was just a small town girl living in a lonely world.
Next we have Elizabeth, who we’ve met before in Luke’s gospel, because she’s famous for being John the Baptist’s mother. Elizabeth was married to Zechariah, and they were both descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother. Zechariah was the one who met Gabriel, and it didn’t go well – he doubted even the angel and was struck dumb as a punishment. Elizabeth and Mary are related – they’ve been called cousins, but it’s more probable that either Elizabeth is Mary’s aunt or that Elizabeth was Mary’s mom Anne’s cousin. Am Karem, the village where they lived, was small but beautiful, surrounded by natural springs and vineyards. Elizabeth was married to a priest, so we can assume her life was difficult.
Okay – we now know the players. Both players were pregnant under mysterious and difficult situations: Mary with the miraculous conception of Jesus and Elizabeth with the natural but incredibly unexpected conception of John. Elizabeth was old, way above the age when anyone would have expected her to have a baby, and so both women needed some special caretaking.
No, it wasn’t easy being a woman in the ancient Middle East, and these two women had it especially hard. To most, they would seem to be facing insurmountable odds, but Mary and Elizabeth had a few things going for them.
For one, they had each other. When Mary heard from Gabriel that Elizabeth was pregnant, what did she do? She ran off on a four-day journey to be with her, to help her aged cousin through what she must have figured to be a difficult if not dangerous time.
Second, they had John and Jesus, one filled with the Holy Spirit and one begotten by the Holy Spirit, so much so that John, even just six months in the womb, could sense Jesus’ presence. And so both Mary and Elizabeth are pregnant with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth moved to shouting and Mary to song.
Third, they both had a faith few can match. What must have it been like to be fourteen and asked to bear the Son of God? What must have it been like to be seventy and come up pregnant, her husband unable to talk (maybe that was a blessing)? And yet, knowing that it all must be God’s will, they were able to find joy in the midst of wonder and confusion.
As we slide into Christmas Eve and finish preparing for the joy of the Nativity, take a moment to think about Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph and Zechariah and all the normal, everyday people that the first Christmas happened to. Think about what it took for them to just get to what we now comfortably celebrate, and ask God for the kind of relationships and faith they had, and for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
 John J. Pilch: http://liturgy.slu.edu/4AdvC122318/theword_cultural.html