We are now in the final phase of the Advent season, the immediate preparation for the feast of Christmas. In the Gospel reading we are presented with the account of the visit of Mary to Elizabeth. Superficially there is no significant action; Mary simply visits her cousin and then goes home. What Luke gives us is the conversation between the two women and this is very revealing.
Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant, though further on in her pregnancy, with John the Baptist. Both have experienced an annunciation and a miraculous conception: Mary while remaining a virgin and Elizabeth when she was already past childbearing age.
God’s decisive intervention in the history of the world is now well underway and the two women seem to be well aware of this and fully realise that they are strategic players in the great cosmic drama which is now unfolding. As soon as Mary comes into view the child leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. This is a strange word leapt or jumped. A baby moves in the womb, this we know, but to leap is most extraordinary. Elizabeth actually tells Mary that the child within her leapt with joy.
We are being told that the two children, even though enclosed in their respective mother’s wombs somehow managed to recognise each other. John the Baptist whose eventual role was to identify and proclaim the coming of the Messiah seems to be already doing this even though he is not yet born into the world. It is as if his whole existence is defined by this recognition. So, although the account is ostensibly about the meeting of two mothers it is actually about the meeting of two unborn children.
Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, echoes this recognition by greeting Mary as ‘the Mother of my Lord’. She recognises the importance of the event and expresses her joy and humility in being involved in the unfolding of God’s plan by saying, ‘Why am I so favoured.’ The acknowledgement by Elizabeth of the importance of Mary and her role comes out in her exclamation, ‘Blessed are you among women’.
Many members of other Christian denominations wonder why we Catholics honour Mary and give her so much devotion and proclaim her blessed status. Well, in this, we are only following in the steps of her cousin Elizabeth. And her words are validated by the fact that they were uttered under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
If Elizabeth expresses her honour and respect towards Mary at such a vital moment then we can safely follow her and ought to hold Mary in equally high regard.
The tone, of course, of the whole passage is one of joy. The prophecy made by the angel concerning the birth of John the Baptist earlier in the Gospel comes true, ‘He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth’. (Luke 1:14)
The angel also made the prediction: ‘Even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit’. (Luke 1:15) This prophetic recognition by John of the Messiah even while in the womb is therefore under the direct inspiration of God and has been foretold by his messenger.
This is an important passage in Luke’s Gospel and worthy of deep study. We call the collection of stories concerning the birth and early years of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke the Infancy Narratives. And many scholars regard them as Gospels in miniature.
Here we can see a good example of this. An important part of the main Gospel is taken up with the role of John the Baptist, his preaching and his task of preparing a way for the Lord and eventually the sending of his disciples to Jesus. These events are all prefigured here in this in the account of John leaping within his mother’s womb in recognition of the Messiah.
As we have said the basic tone of this text is one of rejoicing. This rejoicing comes about because Elizabeth and Mary realise that the events so long foretold are now coming to pass. The Messiah has arrived and is entering the world. They are rejoicing also because they realise that they are personally involved in these events.
This basic tone of joy should not simply pervade our scriptural text it ought to pervade the lives of all Christians. In our case, it should permeate our lives even more than that of Elizabeth and Mary because, while they were there at the beginning, we have seen the fulfilment of all that was promised.
We have witnessed, albeit at a distance, the working out of that great drama of the salvation of the world. They were involved in the early stages but we have seen the end of the story. We know that it was concluded successfully and indeed gloriously.
So, our fundamental attitude is one of deep joy and satisfaction that God has achieved his purpose and that the salvation of humanity was brought about through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is Good News and we rejoice in it. This is not like an ‘I’ve won the lottery!’ type of rejoicing, it is something altogether quieter, more restrained and perhaps understated.
Our tendency is to be rather discreet about our rejoicing, especially since we have a whole lifetime of it. If we carried on like a lottery winner for the whole of our lives we would be utterly exhausted and everyone else would be sick of us! But one has to say that some of us Christians keep this joy so discreet and so well hidden that you would wonder if they knew there was any Good News at all!
Advent has been a sober season; we have been doing a bit of spiritual spring-cleaning. Many of us have already taken advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If we haven’t then there is just enough time to put that right. But in this last week the tone of Advent has changed, it has stepped up a gear; now is the time to express some of this joy, time to be a bit less sober.
I heard on the radio someone saying that more alcohol will be consumed this coming week that at any other time of the year. Fair enough, you might say, at a feast the wine should flow. And I certainly wouldn’t disagree!
But this is not the kind of rejoicing we are talking about. Our Christian joy stems from our realisation that good has won the victory over evil; that Christ has rescued us from the jaws of death and that he raises us to a truly fulfilling life.
The values of Christ are love, goodness, truth, justice, hope, fidelity, service and holiness and these are the qualities that ought to characterise our Christian life. Our joy is not that of an empty vessel making a lot of noise, but a deep, abiding, satisfying happiness and contentment in the knowledge that the victory has been won.
Yes, there is still plenty for us to do and many tribulations that we must yet endure. But the knowledge and the joy that we possess keeps us faithful and true to Christ throughout our lives and in the life to come.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket