How can we support women struggling with conception and pregnancy?
As we near the end of Advent, today’s Gospel can inspire us to feel God’s presence in our lives and respond when we are called in new, challenging directions. Though the Gospel is powerful, we should be mindful that it could be difficult for women who are struggling with conception, miscarriage or other difficulties related to childbearing, fertility and loss.
‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’ (Lk 1:42)
How can you support women experiencing challenges related to conception and pregnancy?
Do you maintain faith even during difficult times?
How and where do you experience God’s presence in your life?
The Gospel reading is a unique story from Luke that describes Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. The encounter, known as the Visitation, has been depicted in religious art, and it typically portrays Mary and Elizabeth in conversation, sometimes visibly pregnant, cradling their bellies or embracing one another. The artistic renditions frequently highlight the excitement, surprise and joy of the women, as each is unexpectedly expecting a child.
The scene in the Gospel is powerful for several reasons. Both of these conceptions are divinely ordained and fulfilled. Earlier in the Gospel, Luke states that Elizabeth had not been able to have children, and he stresses that she is older, suggesting she is beyond childbearing age. Yet the angel Gabriel appears to her husband, Zechariah, and announces that she will bear a son named John. Elizabeth does conceive and stays in seclusion for five months. Luke does not state the reason for her isolation. Perhaps it is for her protection and to avoid revealing to others that she is pregnant, precautions that could suggest an insecurity over whether the baby would come to term.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary, who is a virgin, is visited by Gabriel, who announces that she will conceive and bear a son named Jesus. Mary is also informed of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Despite biological circumstances that make pregnancy unlikely if not impossible, both women become pregnant by divine proclamation and action. In today’s Gospel, the cousins meet and celebrate their divine favor and their sons.
The narrative gives us a biblical example of God’s active involvement with humanity. God changes the lives of these women and their families, and God also calls on them to embrace their pregnancies, which will ultimately affect all the world.
Mary’s acceptance of her calling is notable and admirable, especially as a young, engaged woman. Despite the shocking change in her life, Mary’s response of “Here I am…may it be done to me according to your word,” shows her open acceptance of her calling.
Elizabeth’s reaction to her pregnancy is relatable for many women and reveals some of the implicit pains associated with today’s reading. When Elizabeth conceives, she responds by saying, “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.” Many women, past and present, feel ashamed and inadequate for not bearing children. In antiquity (and for some even today), challenges with fertility and conception are viewed as women’s faults and problems. Women were considered “forgotten” by God if they could not conceive, and miraculous conceptions are framed as God “remembering” women.
Many women hope to celebrate their pregnancies as Mary and Elizabeth do in today’s Gospel, and some never will have that opportunity. We must be conscious of how this passage can at once inspire and enrich our spiritual lives but can also trigger diverse reactions and emotions. Rather than focusing on how others, especially men, will evaluate their unexpected pregnancies, Mary and Elizabeth offer each other support. Today we face many challenges and debates centered on women and their bodies. The Gospel reminds us to listen to women and hear their complex experiences, showing care and empathy above all else.