Portable Commentary

Advent 4C / 19 December 2021

Thought for the day  
Even in its resolutely secular form, the Christmas celebration has positive sides to it. People do try very hard to get together with close family and friends. It might help to reflect in advance on this seasonal intensity of encounter. What do I hope for? What do I bring? How can I/we be so that we are not simply in the same physical space but truly meet each other and are the better for it? There should be some leap of joy, so that at the end of the festivities, we are glad we made the effort.

Prayer  
God of all loving, bless all our encounters this Christmas. Help us to be both kind and joyful, so that all whom we meet will be the better for it. Inspire us to know when a word of witness will lift the celebration and enable family and friends to get to the heart of it all.

Gospel

Mary Visits Elizabeth

Luke 1:39   In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

Initial observations
The lectionary offers the short form of the story, but the Magnificat is equally part of it and is therefore restored here. This vignette, unique to Luke, brings the two prophets together in their respective mothers’ wombs. As such, it forms part of Luke’s theology that John and Jesus are related, on the level of the history of salvation, and, at the same time, that the second prophet, Jesus, is greater than the first, John. This distinction is already made clear in the various things which have been already about each child (see the annunciations to Zechariah and to Mary) and now, John, an unconscious child, signals the arrival of the Messiah. The passage which follows this greeting by Elizabeth is one of the most subversive in the New Testament, Mary’s hymn of praise, the Magnificat.

How historical these stories might be can be gauged from a story later in the same Gospel according to Luke:

The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” (Luke 7:18–23)

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:56). That Mary stays three months and then departs is a bit odd (six and three being nine) but the presence of Mary at the birth of John would have complicated the narrative unnecessarily and would have served no purpose.

Initial observations
The lectionary offers the short form of the story, but the Magnificat is equally part of it and is therefore restored here. This vignette, unique to Luke, brings the two prophets together in their respective mothers’ wombs. As such, it forms part of Luke’s theology that John and Jesus are related, on the level of the history of salvation, and, at the same time, that the second prophet, Jesus, is greater than the first, John. This distinction is already made clear in the various things which have been already about each child (see the annunciations to Zechariah and to Mary) and now, John, an unconscious child, signals the arrival of the Messiah. The passage which follows this greeting by Elizabeth is one of the most subversive in the New Testament, Mary’s hymn of praise, the Magnificat.

How historical these stories might be can be gauged from a story later in the same Gospel according to Luke:

The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” (Luke 7:18–23)

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:56). That Mary stays three months and then departs is a bit odd (six and three being nine) but the presence of Mary at the birth of John would have complicated the narrative unnecessarily and would have served no purpose.

Kind of writing
This single scene makes sense only against the background of Luke 1-2 (or even Luke 1:5-4:15) as a whole. The Infancy Narrative of Luke may be seen to fall into seven very skilfully constructed tableaux, as in the table below. Each scene has three characteristics as described below.

(1) Each tableau begins with a setting of the scene, whether historical or biblical. (2) Entry of chief personality/s, and in due course, their exit / a concluding statement. (3) Climax in the form of some kind of revelation (which highlights the theological significance of the scene the Angel’s message in 1, 2 and 5; an inspired canticle in 3, 4 and 6 and Jesus’ first recorded words in 7).

The only “encounter” between the two sets of protagonists in Luke 1-2 is the Visitation, which thereby has an almost disproportionate significance.

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Old Testament background
Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. (Deut 28:4)

Then Uzziah said to her, “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies. (Jdt 13:18—not wholly inappropriate given the political nature of the Magnificat!)

New Testament foreground
There are explicit connections with the rest of the Gospel. These links are always on a thematic level; no one within the ministry ever seems to “remember” any of this, not even John the Baptist himself. But the theological themes anticipated here are present in the two volumes of Luke-Acts.

“To fill” or “to fulfil”: Luke 1:15, 20, 23, 41, 57, 67; 2:6, 21–22, 40; 3:5; 4:21, 28; 5:7, 26; 6:11; 7:1; 9:31; 21:22, 24; 22:16; 24:44; Acts 1:16; 2:2, 4, 28; 3:10, 18; 4:8, 31; 5:3, 17, 28; 7:23, 30; 9:17, 23; 12:25; 13:9, 25, 27, 45, 52; 14:26; 19:21, 29; 24:27.
Holy Spirit: Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25–26; 3:16, 22; 4:1; 10:21; 11:13; 12:10, 12; Acts 1:2, 5, 8, 16; 2:4, 33, 38; 4:8, 25, 31; 5:3, 32; 6:5; 7:51, 55; 8:15, 17, 19; 9:17, 31; 10:38, 44–45, 47; 11:15–16, 24; 13:2, 4, 9, 52; 15:8, 28; 16:6; 19:2, 6; 20:23, 28; 21:11; 28:25.

Joy, rejoice: Luke 1:14, 44, 47; 10:21.

Blessed: Luke 1:45; 6:20–22; 7:23; 10:23; 11:27–28; 12:37–38, 43; 14:14–15; 23:29.
At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:21–22)

St Paul
But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me. (Phil 2:17–18)

Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. (Phil 3:1)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Phil 4:4)

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. (Phil 4:10)

Brief commentary
The two story lines of birth are brought together here. Elizabeth pronounces a brief exclamation of praise and Mary a much longer canticle.

Verse 39 The “hill country” and “Judah” are mentioned again in Luke 1:65. Tradition has identified the town as Ein Kerem (in southwest Jerusalem today).
Verse 40 Mentioning Zechariah reminds us of the earlier annunciation to him, which opened Luke’s narrative.
Verse 41 The leaping—the “quickening” of the womb—is symbolic of the arrival of salvation. For Luke’s purposes, it constitutes an acknowledgement of the Messiah by the Baptist. As above, the Holy Spirit is the energy behind the project of Jesus and the proclamation of the Good News. For leaping in the womb: cf. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” (Gen 25:21–23)
Verse 42 A double beatitude, behind which stand the Old Testament references above.
Verse 43 “My Lord” means that Jesus is already proclaimed Lord. It is by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that Elizabeth recognises the moment of salvation.
Verse 44 The reason for the leaping is given: sheer joy in salvation, a key theme in Luke-Acts.
Verse 45 The contrast is with Zechariah who did not believe and was struck dumb. Mary did believe and gives her great canticle before Zechariah gives his. This is a key verse for the Lucan theology of Mary as model disciple. Cf. Lk 8:19-21; 11:27-28; Acts 1:14. NB the omission of “in his own house” in Lk 4:24, in considerable contrast with Mk 6:4.

Pointers for prayer
1. The greeting of Elizabeth to Mary “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” is a joyful welcome of the child to come. Bringing new life into the world through pregnancy and birth is one of the most awesome human experiences. How have you experienced this for yourself or in someone close to you?
2. The image of the pregnant Mary going a distance to visit her cousin is a symbol of willingness to look beyond one’s own needs to the needs of others. When have you witnessed that kind of generosity in others, or have been able to act in this way yourself?
3. Mary is praised for her faith, because she believed the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled. In what ways have you experienced blessings from your faith and trust in God’s promises?


Prayer
Who are we, Lord God, that you should come to us? Yet you have visited your people and redeemed us in your Son.

As we prepare to celebrate his birth, make our hearts leap for joy at the sound of your Word, and move us by your Spirit to bless your wonderful works.
We ask this through him whose day draws near: your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Portable